Deceptive contrition

by Andrea Elizabeth

This next part is so enlightening that I will post the whole thing.

In life there are frequent misconceptions about this despiar over sin, presumably because of a universal preoccupation with frivolity, thoughtlessness, and sheer triviality, and for this reason people as a rule become quite formal and deferentially take off their hats to any manifestation of something deeper. Either in confused haziness about itself and its significance, or with a streak of hypocrisy, or by way of the craftiness and sophistry intrinsic to all despair, despair over sin is not averse to giving itself the appearance of being something good. Then it is supposed to be the mark of a deep nature, which therefore is so sensitive about its sin. For example, if a person who has been addicted to some sin or other but has successfully resisted temptation for a long time has a relapse and again succumbs to temptation, then the depression that sets in is by no means always sorrow over the sin. It can be something very different; for that matter, it may be a bitterness against Governance, as if it were responsible for his succoumbing to temptation, as if it ought not to have been so hard on him, since he had successfully resisted temptation for such a long time. In any case, it is altogether effeminate straightway to regard this sorrow as good, not to be in the least aware of the duplicity in all passionateness, which in turn is a sense of the ominous that can make the passionate one understand later, almost to the point of madness, that he has said the very opposite of what he intended to say. Such a person emphatically declares, perhaps in ever stronger terms, that this relapse plagues and torments him, brings him to despair, and he says: “I will never forgive myself.” This is supposed to sho how much good there is in him, what a deep nature he has. It is a subterfuge. I deliberately used that stock phrase, “I will never forgive myself,” words commonly heard in this connection. And with this very phrase one can immediately straighten out oneself dialectically. He will never forgive himself – but now if God would forgive him this, well, he certainly could have the goodness to forgive himself. No, his despair over the sin is a far cry from being a qualification of the good, is a more intensive qualification of sin, the intensity of which is absorption in sin – and it is this most of all when he is passionately repeating this phrase and thereby denouncing himself ( the least of his considerations), when he “never will forgive himself” for sinning like that ( for this kind of talk is exactly the opposite of the brokenhearted contrition that prays God to forgive). The point is that during the time that he was successfully resisting temptation he appeared in his own eyes to be better than he actually was, he became proud of himself. It is to this pride’s advantage that the past be altogether a thing of the past. But in this relapse the past suddenly becomes very much present again. His pride cannot bear this reminder, and that is the reason for his profound distress etc. But the distress clearly indicates a movement away from God, a secret selfishness and pride, and is a substitute for humbly beginning by humbly thanking God that he helped him to resist temptation for so long a time, acknowledging before God and himself that it is already much more than he deserved, and then humbling himself under the recollection of what he has been.

Here, as everywhere, is what the old devotional books explain so profoundly, so experientially, so instructively. They teach that God sometimes lets the believer stumble and fall in some temptation or other, precisely in order to humble him and thereby to establish him better in the good; the contrast between the relapse and the possibly significant progress in the good is very humiliating, the identity with himself very painful. The better a person is, the more acutely painful the particular sin naturally is, and the more dangerous is the slightest bit of impatience if he does not make the right turn. In his sorrow, he may sink into the darkest depression – and a fool of a spiritual counselor may be on the verge of admiring his deep soul and the powerful influence good has on him – as if this were of the good. And his wife, well, she feels deeply humbled by comparison with such an earnest and holy man who can sorrow over his sin in this way. His talk may be even more deceptive; he may not say: I can never forgive myself ( as if he had previously forgiven himself sins – a blasphemy). No, he says that God can never forgive him for it. Alas, this is just a subterfuge. His sorrow, his cares, his despair are selfish ( just like the anxiety about sin, which sometimes practically drives a man anxiously into sin because it is self-love that wants to be proud of itself, it be without sin), and consolation is the least of his needs; therefore the prodigious number of reasons that spiritual counselors prescribe for taking consolation merely makes the sickness worse. (The Sickness Unto Death, p. 111, 112)