If you forgive any man’s sins, they are forgiven; if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain. John 20 v23
The church has traditionally been very enthusiastic about repentance, confession and absolution, and it’s not so long ago that Anglicans stopped routinely claiming in public prayer that they were ‘miserable offenders’. But mostly we don’t actually feel miserable about our past actions and the hurts they have caused. Yes, we know we sometimes do things that other people don’t like, but we usually remember that we take knocks as well as give them, and feel that such knocks are just an unavoidable part of life. We ask to be forgiven just as we forgive. Of course a word of apology that acknowledges that we know that the other person has been hurt helps prevent the incident damaging our relationship unduly, but we don’t get miserable about it.
Perhaps we should. Perhaps, like other things that don’t come naturally to us, we ought to teach ourselves to make the relatively minor hurts we have caused others a source of real misery to us. Perhaps we should tell ourselves that if these little hurts don’t cause us misery now, they will eventually in an afterlife, unless we have been mystically released from responsibility for them. So perhaps we should dwell on them, and then enjoy the sense of release today and for ever that confession and absolution are supposed to bring. This approach would certainly be in line with the words that our text from John’s gospel attributes to Jesus. But it doesn’t seem to fit very well with the thrust of the Jesus teaching that wants us to be blessed – makarios – and loving here and now, in and through our lively reciprocal relationships with other people. Asked to choose between the Beatitudes and this saying, I’d opt for the Beatitudes and assume that John, writing two generations after the crucifixion, is bigging up the role of the church for his own, and its, purposes.
In any case, one problem with being required to repent of these little incidents is that it makes us feel that we should never have allowed them to happen in the first place. There’s a limited number of ways to try to do that, and they have all been tried over the centuries. One is to avoid other people as completely as possible, abandoning in the process the possibility of rich human relationships and the blessedness they alone can offer. Another is to determine always to satisfy other people’s expectations, desires and needs in preference to our own, losing in the process both our own autonomy and the flourishing of which is it a necessary part. A third is to adopt a strict and detailed rule of life that in theory if not in practice would make everything all right if only everyone else followed it as well. None of these approaches accords with the Jesus teaching. Moreover, routine repentance if taken seriously tends to turn us into perpetual observers of our own lives, always looking over our own shoulder, so to speak, to see what we are doing so we can check we’re not doing anything ‘wrong’. Now of course we do need to reflect on our lives, but there’s an important difference between reflecting on our actions before or after we have taken them, and checking up on ourselves even as we are trying to get on with the business of living. It’s easy to think so hard about what you’re doing that thinking gets in the way of doing it, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet well knew: ‘the native hue of resolution is sicklèd o’er with the pale cast of Thought.’
As well as enhancing the role of the church, routine confession and absolution fit neatly into the overarching scheme that sees Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as the point at which humanity chose the path of disobedience to divine law, a path we are all on, ought not to be on and must do our best to get off, with the help of God. But the Garden of Eden story may really be about something much more integral to us than disobeying divine orders: it may be about how we humans are so very different from the other animals and from our hominid ancestors. The development of language, the invention of counting, the development of the ability to deceive, the growth of the capacity to love – these and many more human characteristics make our lives not only hugely engaging but also complicated and sometimes difficult. However clearly we understand that the upsides of being human are not available without the downsides, it’s hard sometimes not to find ourselves wishing things could be just as engaging as they are but rather less complicated and difficult. At such times, we’d like our adult lives to be as innocent and straightforward as we mistakenly imagine childhood to be – hence in part the focus on the role played in the complexities of adult lives by what children do not have in its fullness: sexuality. It might be better if we could use the opportunity offered by Confession in public prayer not to pretend to confess our awful sinfulness but rather to remind ourselves of the unavoidably complex nature of human life, and the need to so shape our responses that we can deal lovingly with life’s complexities without thinking about it too hard.
Real, non-routine repentance is pretty rare, not because we are continually committing grievous and manifold sins that we don’t repent of, but because most of us most of the time make a reasonable fist of trying to fulfil ourselves while loving the people around us. But many, perhaps most, of us do however sometimes, whether in haste, in temper, in greed, in carelessness, in ignorance or occasionally with malice, do things whose serious impacts on others justifiably cause us real anguish afterwards. Sometimes we strike a dramatically wrong balance between our personal interests and the interests of other people, and feel haunted by the resulting sense of unease. These are the times when facing up to the implications of what we have done and trying to find ways of undoing some of the hurt we are responsible for is hard, difficult work, and may need help, not just in the shape of a formal Absolution but much more importantly in the shape of skilled and loving counselling. This is not a religious need; it’s a human need that religion offers one way of addressing.