In Lent I repent. I say, “I’m a sinner.” I admit I am wrong, not right. I accept that I am flawed, that I am ignorant and arrogant and proud and willful and egotistical and I could go on and on.
What is the purpose of this self denial and degradation? One of the practical purposes of penitence is that I am being realistic. My own high self image is very likely to be at very least distorted and probably a complete fabrication. Therefore repentance is a useful correction.
The problem with penitence is that it has been distorted by heretical notions of total depravity and excessive doses of guilt. These religious ideas have produced some Christians who are laden with guilt and have a self image that is so low that it can hardly be lifted at all.
Healthy repentance, on the other hand, helps us to take a serious, simple and honest look at ourselves, realize we are imperfect, and begin to make amends. The best way to do this is through a complete examination of conscience.
A good examination of conscience enables us to take an objective look at the state of our soul and to steer around the three things which most cloud our vision: fear of being found out, shame and guilt.
The lowest level of sorrow for sin is fear of being found out. Shame is the embarrassment and disgust at ourselves for doing something which goes against the fine and delightful image we have of ourselves. Guilt is a healthy sorrow for sin because it breaks God’s commandments, and most of all because it offends God himself and desecrates his love for us.
When fear of being found out, shame and guilt combine the emotions are strong and drive us to repentance and the confessional. However, the level of our fear, shame and guilt may not be an accurate indicator of the seriousness of our sin. We may do something sordid and shameful and which may have serious consequences if we are found out, but which may not be a very serious sin. Likewise, we may do something which does not make us feel ashamed and which may have no serious consequences at all, but which is more serious because it is grave matter and we did it intentionally.
A good examination of conscience helps us move beyond the natural feelings of fear, shame and guilt to look objectively at what we’ve done and receive forgiveness and absolution through the confessional. This objectivity corrects both the person who doesn’t feel guilt, fear and shame for their sin and the one who feels this too much.