Let Sorrow for Sin Help You Overcome Your Sins

“For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.”
Psalm 50:5

The more accurately we appraise God’s sanctity and the consequent completeness of His condemnation of evil, the more deeply shall we know the malice of sin, and hence, the more sincerely and enduringly shall we repent. But true repentance forces its way down to the soul’s profoundest consciousness very slowly. In the hardened sinner especially, the moral sense is only gradually quickened to anxious sensitiveness over the commission of his sin.

What uncertainty, what vacillation, what irresolution, what doubt, what dimness of vision, what partial hopes, what slow, fitful enlightenment, what conflicting struggles attend such a soul’s effort to rid itself of sin! God’s mercy works to free the soul from its slavery, and sin ever strives to keep it within the narrow confines of its deceitful captivity; God’s grace ever seeks to illumine it, and the darkness of sin ever deepens, to blind its eyes; the soul yearns to be released from its merciless  thralldom, yet is so attached to sin, so mired in sin, as to fear that God will not release it. But grace by degrees refines the soul’s moral sense, clarifies gradually its vision, until it beholds, to the full extent of its limited powers, the hideousness of sin and God’s ineffable mercy; and smiting the soul, as it did St. Paul, with the consciousness of its desolation, grace finally snaps asunder the chains of its degrading slavery.

What an experience was the sense of our first sin! Perhaps our dormant powers were awakened to the consideration of our diseased state by a sermon, by the death of a dear friend, by “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,” by a sudden illumination of grace piercing the darkness, and causing the scales to fall from our souls’ eyes.

But what a change was effected in our spiritual lives! Even souls schooled in the art of self-discipline, insistently “mortifying by the Spirit the deeds of the flesh,” daily subjecting the natural to the supernatural, have experienced this ever memorable smiting of their spiritual sensibilities over the commission of sin.

How lasting and how profitable is the undying remembrance of such a crisis! How eventful the change wrought by it in the soul’s life! What a complete conversion it worked in the soul of the slave of sin, deciding for him, perhaps, his eternal salvation! What a renewal of fervor, what a stimulus to progress in virtue, now seizes the regenerated soul!

The crisis has instilled the spirit of self-reproach, which, in its sincerity—beholding the soul’s sinfulness, and realizing that there is much more to be repented of and that to bring to light hidden sins is a positive sign of growth in holiness — broadens and deepens the penitential spirit. The soul now realizes that its past sorrow has been without the depth that would enable it to atone for its sins, and it loves God all the more from the conviction born of the knowledge of the guilt of these lapses, and God’s infinite patience with them. And as the soul’s love of Him becomes purer from the consciousness of its guilt, so likewise does its repentance ever increase.

The touchstone of remorse is sorrow of soul inspired by the conviction of sin. It is a sorrow which beholds sin with a vivid and unchanging appreciation of its malice, which constantly contemplates the pain and anguish that sin caused the Redeemer, which gazes with fixed vision on the eternal consequences of sin. This indispensable prerequisite of the true penitential spirit is ever active in the soul to deepen its detestation and sharpen its vision by associating it more closely with Christ’s vision of sin, thereby increasing the soul’s hatred of the guilt of sin; this hatred of sin grows with advancing years and becomes perfect only when the soul enters God’s eternal court, where sorrow shall be no more.

Godly sorrow aroused by the power of grace working remorse in the soul may be transient or permanent. When the conscience of the sinner is first smitten with the sense of sin, he is impulsive, restless, morose, yearns for self-denial, and almost blinds himself to the mercy of God through a false idea of His justice. This unreasonable sorrow soon passes, under the powerful stimulus of grace, into sorrow that is reasonable and permanent. The soul foregoes its violence and grows calm; its fear of God is no longer slavish, but reverential; it becomes more patient with, although not indulgent of, itself; its grief is now silent rather than assertive, because it has penetrated beneath the surface.

Secure in the possession of Him who cannot change, the soul is not eager for fitful sensible fervor. Grounded in humility, it is more vigilant, but also not dejected when it falls. Wholly diffident of itself, it clothes itself with the very strength of God by its childlike trust in Him. Sorrow springing from remorse may, in its twofold aspect, be likened to a river swelling and overflowing its banks, sweeping all before it in its fury, but by degrees subsiding as it sinks into the absorbent soil.

But permanent sorrow has its stages. Even in its advanced state, there is often a trace of the force and assertiveness of its first manifestation. As the soul becomes more keenly receptive to grace, its sense of sin grows, and bitter sorrow makes itself felt at the sight of even slight faults, as it formerly was convulsed by poignant grief for serious sins. The soul’s consciousness of sin has been so quickened, its vision is now so sharp, its appreciation of the sanctity of God and the severity of His justice is now so true, that it is transfixed with fear at the least violation of His law.

In the warmth of growing faith, habitual, quieter, and deeper sorrow gradually gains the ascendancy, and, slowly but surely, it leads the soul to the heights of holiness.

To suppose that sorrow does not exist because it is not demonstrative is a fallacy. Sorrow is very much akin to love. In its first fervor, love is vehement, yearns to express itself, is urgent to prove its sincerity. When it grows calm and wholly possesses the soul, becoming an unfailing source of kindness, self-sacrifice, and inviolable fidelity to duty, love is then the soul’s sublimest passion. At first, it was only a fleeting emotion; now it is a fixed state following the dictates of reason, and thus befitting an intelligent creature. Likewise, sorrow for sin, which divests repentance of excitability and makes it conform to the stern law of duty, far from languishing, acquires a more secure hold on the principles of the higher life.

The striving of the soul to rid itself of sin is the best evidence of the progress of its remorse. We are more certain of our sin than of our penitence. We know our sin directly; only by inference from its practical results can we prove our penitence. Only when the conviction of our sin is so rooted that it touches with healing the very source of our sin — only then are we sincerely repentant.

The sinner, however, no matter how depraved, does not love sin for its own sake. As the intellect clings to error, not because of the error, but because it beholds at least a modicum of truth in it, so the will consents to evil because it appears good. We are enamored, not of sin in itself, but only of the effects of sin. The man who circumvents his neighbor loves, not the trickery involved in deception so diabolical, but the result of it, the gain that he thinks will accrue to him. The acquisition of wealth is very powerful in its appeal to the man who is sordidly materialistic, but the duplicity and dishonesty that he may resort to in amassing a fortune cannot but be distasteful to him.

In short, man may long to gratify his passions, but not for the sake of the sin implicated with such indulgence. The desire to please self is so strong in him that it may stifle all his revulsion to sin and plunge his soul headlong into it. He is attracted by the pleasure the sin gives him; he loves the fountainhead and source of the sin. The satisfaction of his passions urges him on, driving him to trample on grace and its fruit, the desire to please God, which is entirely inconsistent with self-gratification.

Not the malice of sin in itself, but rather, the love of self-indulgence, is the reason for sin. The hatred of sin in itself is not therefore the essential difference between true and false repentance.

True repentance is easily discerned. Mortification is its soul. When we repeatedly resist our ruling passion, when we remove the causes that stir it into action, when we lay the axe to the root of sin, when we are proof against the alluring voice of self-love, which ever seeks to discredit the claims of conscience, when we bridle the triple concupiscence of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, when we are guided by the divine philosophy of the gospel and not by the uncertain, shifting maxims of the world, when the spirit of self-denial has so thoroughly woven itself into the fibers of our religious life as to make us impervious to the poisonous exhalations of worldliness, sensuality, and pride, when there is a substantial, not an accidental change in our attitude toward sin in its complex guises, when the Cross is for us the test and measure of success, when we learn the secret of sanctity from its greatest exponent and exemplar, Jesus Christ, who “did not please Himself,” when we “rend our hearts and not our garments,” and turn wholly to the Lord, our God — then and then only are we truly penitent.

The soul sincerely repentant appreciates the force of Christ’s words: “Watch, and pray that you enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Such a soul is ever watchful, keenly conscious of the many subtle distempers of the human heart, ever ready to fight courageously against the passions that may, in an instant, be kindled into a mighty conflagration within it, ever on its guard lest the enemy surprise it openly or lead it covertly into the occasions of sin, deepening its confidence in God by increasingly distrusting its own strength. On the contrary, the soul that is not truly penitent still hankers after the seductive sweetness of sin; it flees not its devious paths; its enchanting spell still lulls the soul to sleep; self-love, and not the love of God, still rules supreme.

With such a soul, amendment is not a firm, efficacious resolve, but a mere weak wish that is powerless to withstand the stress and storm of temptation. The soul in this state, without the abiding conviction of sin, cannot renounce itself nor arouse the spirit of self-denial so essential to sincere repentance. The supreme need of such a soul is a strong sense of the sanctity of God, and of His consequent detestation of sin as revealed in the punishment which He reserves for it hereafter.

The essential difference between true and false repentance shows the indisputable necessity of sincerity with God. Our service of God must be free from duplicity. Christ enforces this truth: “He that is not with me is against me.” God cannot tolerate any compromise with sin: “He that gathereth not with me scattereth.” The man who tries to bargain with God is a weakling.To confess and not to change is treason against God. The eye of the soul must be sound. To the conviction that we are sinners, we must add honesty in dealing with our sins and in addressing ourselves to God for their pardon. Grace not only can reveal to the soul its characteristic weakness — without the cloak in which dishonest self-love would hide it — but also can counteract the deadly poison of sin and give the soul the moral strength to overcome the treacherous tempter.

Just as the vividness of the sense of sin is the measure of the growth of penitence, repentance is the great law of spiritual progress for both saint and sinner. But paradoxical as it may seem, the penitential spirit is more fully developed in the saint than in the sinner. The saint’s foundation of holiness is laid, and its superstructure mounts higher through watchfulness, prayer, and fasting. These are the means he uses to prevent carnal darkness from curtaining the eyes of his soul. He is convinced that he bears in his flesh the seeds of sin. He realizes that he carries about with him a body prone to sin.

Constantly reflecting upon the records of human corruption in the world about him, he beholds with the power of ever-broadening vision the sources of sin within him. He knows that his heart is a miniature of the great heart of humanity, and the melancholy monuments along the high road of history which he daily beholds are cautionary signals warning him against the snares that threaten his own spiritual ruin. Conscious that he is a child of sin, he checks his vicious tendencies and restrains his passions by drastic self-discipline.

Such penitence is essentially progressive. As the soul quits the haunts of sin and grows in virtue, its sorrow for sin must increase because, under the searching rays of truth that enlighten the soul as it tries to reach a higher plane of moral rectitude, it sees the essential difference between the oppressive darkness of its former sinful state and the pure, invigorating atmosphere of sanctity which it now breathes, and it better appreciates the miracle of mercy performed by God in working so marked a change in it. The soul inured to a life of repentance, ever maintaining its empire over the infirmities of the flesh, will utter its act of deepest, most godly sorrow at the hour of death. As long, however, as the soul lingers in its prison, regardless of its advances in sanctity, persevering penitence is absolutely necessary.

“Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord. Converse in fear during the time of your sojourning here. With fear and trembling work out your salvation. He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”

These words are addressed to both saint and sinner. The fear of the Lord, the crown of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is an essential part of the penitential spirit. Christ our model availed Himself of this gift, “who in the days of His flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to Him who was able to save Him from death, was heard for His reverence.”

The possibility that we may lose our souls is a thought well calculated to strike terror into our hearts. Fear must therefore be the sustaining nourishment of our sorrow. If we fear God, He will hear our sighs, and we will swiftly proceed along the rugged but royal way of repentance until we arrive at the mountain of God.

Habitual penitence is the infallible test of growth in holiness, of the depth of its penetration, and the sincerity and consistency of its profession. The spirit of self-condemnation and of profound abasement must be the food ever feeding the energies of our resistance and self-denial, renewing our powers of self-discipline, restraining our tendency to indulgence, which is born of self-love, and strengthening us in the hour of trial by tightening our hold on God.

In the light of these truths, Lent, the season of serious thought and solemn penitence, should exert a dominant influence upon the soul aspiring to closer union with God. During this sacred time, the Church bids her children to scrutinize with care the plain, bare, searching truths of her sublime moral code. Somber in penitential garb, she invites them to contemplate the “Man of Sorrows” and to lay the deep foundation of veritable repentance by meditation on what it cost Him to redeem us.

The voice of God, during these forty days, seems to speak more clearly, perhaps because the ears of our souls are more sensitively attuned by grace to catch its faintest whisper. It gently chides us and thus awakens within us the power of remorse. It strengthens our conviction that we are sinners and, opening the sluices of our sorrow when we confess, wafts the wail of our heartfelt grief to the throne of God. We hear the echo of God’s forgiveness in the words of absolution; and the smile of God, appeased again, illumines our souls. Whether smiting us directly or sharply reproving us through its divinely appointed oracles, it is the voice of love.

What more singular proof of God’s mercy to sinners than His perennial pursuit of their souls? Now He speaks to them sternly through mental anguish or bodily pain; at another time, He humiliates them to the dust by the loss of earthly possessions or the coldness of ardently cherished friends. Thus He rouses them from their spiritual inertia to the serious consideration of the ravages of sin within them and the danger of eternal loss; and so, inspirited with the fear of the Lord and made “wise unto sobriety,” they forsake sin and adorn their souls with the virtues that will render them precious in His sight and be the pledge of their eternal union with Him.


This article is adapted from a chapter in How to Make a Good Confession by John A. Kane which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Confession: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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