- voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong. atonement expiation self-punishment self-mortification self-abasement amends punishment penalty
- a Christian sacrament in which a member of the Church confesses sins to a priest and is given absolution.
- a religious observance or other duty required of a person by a priest as part of this sacrament to indicate repentance.
As a Christian we believe that forgiveness is a free gift of god (Romans 6:23). Christ died for our sins and did this because of his love for us. The salvation is a gift He offers us, but it is a gift that must be accepted. This gift involves the forgiveness of sins. I find this easiest to understand if I compare it to a debt. Just imagine having a large mortgage which requires you to make payments- month after month and year after year. Imagine that someone comes along and pays off that mortgage so suddenly your house is free and clear- no more payments. Salvation is like that except that instead of money we have a debt of sin. To be free from the debt of sin it is only necessary to ask for forgiveness. (1 John 1:9) This is clear and this is true.
But there is more…
Forgiveness requires that we first acknowledge that we have sinned. How can we ask to be forgiven if we don’t first admit we have done wrong and need forgiveness? Second it require sorrow. We must be sorry we sinned. Confessing a sin is like apologizing. When we wrong someone we apologize and say we are sorry. Last of all after a good confession what should follow is gratitude for what was given us. I think this area of gratitude is where penance may come in.
Sometimes there are sins that may be committed for which we may legitimately make up for. For example if we steal something of value, it could be returned or paid for. Perhaps the person from whom the item or money was stolen forgives you and does not ask the item to be returned, but a true spirit of gratitude would require you to do what you could to repay the person. This repayment would be a form of penance. This is restitution.
There are often sins for which no restitution is possible. The taking of a life- murder. This could be the result of malice or a simple careless act (such as a texting while driving). The person performing the act could be forgiven - by God or by a family member of the dead person, but what possible penance could be performed? I don’t know what could be done.
It brings to mind an illustration taken from a recent movie- The Mission. Soldier and slave trader, Rodrigo Mendoza kills his younger brother in a duel after finding him in bed with his girlfriend. Mendoza is wrought with guilt and only after speaking with Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel, decides to go on a mission trip to serve the natives living in the interior of . On the long and difficult trip to the village, Mendoza carries a burden weighing hundreds of pounds. The burden consists of his weapons and armor from his former life as a soldier. The burden he carries is his penance. As the story progresses we learn that this penance was not given by Father Gabriel. This was the penance Mendoza chose.
It seems that penance is not really punishment, but it is something that we need. God may forgive us and people we offend may forgive us, but often we have trouble forgiving ourselves. Penance helps us to work through our guilt.
I have noticed that when I go to confession that the penance given to me by the priest is something that seems rather small- perhaps say an “Our Father” or perhaps a “Hail Mary” or pray for something or someone. It is not really much- but it is significant. One of the lessons I learned about going to confession is to do the penance required immediately. Don’t wait till tomorrow. Along with the forgiveness received is the penance which must be performed. It is a small sign of gratitude for the forgiveness received.
I had a recent insight into penance when a re-read the story of Jesus appearing to Peter after the resurrection. Jesus asks Peter three times- “do you love me?” Many people have observed that the three times Jesus ask Peter, “do you love me?” correspond to the three times Peter denied Jesus during the passion. I see Jesus confronting Peter with these questions as a form of penance. Of course Jesus forgave Peter for his denial, but having Peter profess his love three times was a form of penance. It was what Peter needed- not Jesus.
As a former Baptist I believed in forgiveness, but I was not taught the practice of penance. I know have come to see that God does not so much want or need our acts of penance, but it is something that we need. It allows us in a small way to express our gratitude for the forgiveness we have received.