The problem with repenting is that it is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s emotional. To repent, one must feel penitent.
Let’s say you’ve done something “wrong” or “sinful.” It may be a one-off incident or a habit you have developed. But you felt good about doing it. Not that you justified or rationalized your way into doing something; you really didn’t feel it was wrong at the time. Then, when the consequences come home, you realize that what you have done is harmful.
Here’s the problem: you may still feel that you were in the right. You may be sorry there resulted in some negative consequences, but you’re not sorry for what you did. You don’t feel that you were wrong. How can you repent when you don’t feel like repenting? (There is another class of sin where you know you are wrong as you are doing it, but do it anyway, either through perversity or a feeling of helplessness. That is not the focus of this discussion.)
We’re often told to go through the motions, to fake it until you make it, but it seems that in the case of repentance, feeling penitent is required. We’ve all seen public figures caught out in scandals offer insincere-sounding apologies. While we recognize the need for them to go through the formality of apologizing, because we generally see that as formality, not as true contrition, we continue to disapprove of them.
Or perhaps you’ve dealt with squabbling children, or remember being a quarreling child. You are forced to apologize, to say “sorry” like you mean it, but either your capacity for sympathetic imagination is poor, or you’re still caught up in your own sense of self-righteous indignation, because you in no way feel sorry and you have no intention of possibly feeling so until the other person grovels for their injustice to you. It’s hard to imagine a less sincere apology, but we’ve all likely forced out the grudging words “I’m sorry” in such circumstances. Such a performance may help hostilities pass, but bears only a superficial resemblance to one of the steps of repentance.
I’m sure we must all have our own quiet, private sins. Some of them we just learn to live with, a burden we’ve become so accustomed to carrying, we forget that it would even be possible to set it down. And sometimes, we’re forced to confront our actions and recognize them as sinful. But that’s not enough. We can’t just know that we’ve done wrong; we have to feel it. That can be hard to do. How do you change how you feel?
Is it the atonement? That you call on Christ, not just to heal your hurt, but to allow you to feel the pain of your injury? We must give our will over to God, but that’s an intellectual proposition; we know we must try to do what we think He requires of us to do regardless of how we feel. But this is asking more: we must choose to give up that which makes up autonomous, that which makes the stoic free. We must also give over how we feel. We must be willing to feel bad, to feel our wrongness. And once we are granted that bitter grace, then we can begin to honestly repent.
What can be more profound and terrible than this requirement? For it is not just that we are willing to give away our sins to know God; it’s that we deny how we feel about our choices and actions, rejecting our own interpretation of our experiences. What is our self, other than that living memory of what we’ve done and how we feel about it? To repent, we must deny that very core of what the self is. And somehow, upbuilding lies in the thought, that before God, we are always in the wrong (Kierkegaard, Either/Or).