Have you ever tried to clean a sidewalk, a driveway, or a concrete patio? Of course, scrubbing and scrubbing with hot water will wipe away some of the dirt, but if you want to restore it to its original whiteness, you need something more. In many cases, a good dose of bleach will do a fine job—and often with far less labor on your part. All you have to do is pour out the cleaning solution and spray it with a blast of water. Then, almost miraculously, the dirt rolls right off, and the concrete is as good as new.
Just as dirt, slime, and oil can accumulate and darken the appearance of a concrete sidewalk, sin covers our souls and darkens them. Yet with the gift of repentance, all that junk can be washed away simply and easily. All we have to do is acknowledge our sins and turn to God in humble, heartfelt repentance. Then his power of forgiveness goes to work, making us as clean as the day we were baptized.
Refreshment, Restoration, and Fruit. When we cry out, like King David, "Have mercy on me, O God," God responds (Psalm 51:1). When we see our sin and imitate Peter by saying, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8), he doesn't "depart." Instead, he begins to work in us, refreshing us, restoring us, and even empowering us to bear godly fruit. In this article, we want to look at these three blessings and then explore the different opportunities God has given us to receive the grace of his mercy and forgiveness.
The first thing God does when we repent is to bring us back from captivity by refreshing our weary hearts (Jeremiah 31:25). He refreshes us by removing the burden of guilt and shame and darkness that sin creates within us. He refreshes us by setting our hearts at peace and showering us with mercy. And he refreshes us by assuring us that we are still his beloved sons and daughters, members of his family and coheirs with Christ.
Repentance also gives us a taste of the kind of restoration that the prodigal son felt when he came home. He was weary, grimy, and smelly from his misadventures, but his father immediately embraced him and sought to restore him. All the articles that he gave his son—a ring, sandals, and a robe—were signs of dignity and belonging. They were meant to show the boy that he had indeed come home, where he could finally find rest and acceptance. And this is exactly what God does for us every time we return to him in repentance. He restores our sense of dignity and reassures us that we are completely forgiven.
When the prodigal returned home, he likely faced a number of challenges: the challenge to change his behavior and expectations of life, the challenge to allow his wounded memories to be healed, even the challenge to be reconciled with his older brother. But perhaps the biggest challenge had nothing to do with the past but with the future: the challenge to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8). In other words, full restoration includes the restoration of a person's calling as well as the restoration of his dignity and his relationships. When God forgives us, he wants to assure us that our sins are forgotten, but he also wants to reassure us that we can still bear wonderful fruit.
Opportunities for Repentance. So how do we get free? We can summarize repentance into four simple steps we can take. First, we can begin by admitting to the Lord that we have dishonored him and that our only hope is in his mercy. Second, we should examine our hearts and actions during the day and try to make a list of the sins we recall. Third, we should confess these sins clearly to the Lord, trusting that if we do so, "he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Finally, we should not forget to forgive those who have hurt us during the day. Of course, some hurts simply take more time to heal than others, but every day we can take another step toward fully forgiving so that we can know God's forgiveness as fully as possible.
Essentially, there are three opportunities open to us to make this fourfold act of repentance and to receive the forgiveness and cleansing that Jesus wants to give us. The first is in the privacy and intimacy of our own prayer life. We should all make it a point to establish the habit of examining our consciences at the end of each day. Just as St. Paul encouraged us never to let the sun go down on our anger, we should never let the sun set on unrepented sins (Ephesians 4:26). While some sins will need the grace of Confession, it's always a good idea to bring them all to the Lord as soon as possible so that their sting is removed and so that guilt does not get the upper hand.
A second opportunity is ours every time we celebrate Mass. Just before we hear the word of the Lord, we are invited to cry out, "Lord, have mercy! Christ have mercy!" This act of openly admitting that we have sinned is a powerful way to take responsibility for our actions and to humble ourselves before God and one another. It also gives us the opportunity to get ourselves right with all the people around us as well. The Penitential Rite tells us that we belong to one another and that our sins affect each other. As such, it gives us the chance to be at peace with the people who we are about to join before the altar of the Lord and with whom we are about to receive his body and blood. It's as if this is our "last chance" to overcome any obstacles between ourselves and God—and among each other—before we receive Communion!
The Sacrament. Finally, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As one of the main avenues of divine grace, this sacrament has the power to remove sin, restore us to God's presence, and give us the experience of a spiritual resurrection. While it may not be as popular as it once was, Confession is a powerful weapon in the spiritual battle. The simple—and at times demanding—act of confessing our sins fully and honestly to a priest is perhaps the most complete and effective way we can open ourselves to the healing, reconciling touch of Jesus. While the first and second methods described above are effective, serious and persistent sin needs this third way. Especially when it is an issue of mortal sin, nothing can bring us face-to-face with the God of mercy and love in quite the same way as this great sacrament of healing.
It is also through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that we are brought back into full communion with all of our brothers and sisters in the church. In a way similar to but even more powerful than the Penitential Rite, Reconciliation has a communal aspect to it. There is no such thing as a completely "private" sin. Each of us is a vital member of the body of Christ. We are all connected to each other, as if in one very large family. And that means that our sins have a negative impact on each other just as one family member's problems affect everyone else. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God wants to assure us not only that we are reconciled with him but with the whole church. He wants to let us know that we have been brought back into the warm embrace of our family and that nothing need hinder our experience of brotherhood and fellowship.
When you go to Confession, prepare yourself using the four steps outlined above. Pray before you go. Strive for humility, precision, and contrition. As you are confessing your sins, don't get embarrassed. The priest you are confessing to is like you; he knows what it means to be a sinner. In fact, he is probably cheering you on because he knows what God is ready to do for anyone who turns back to him. Finally, be sure to forgive those who have hurt you. If you cannot let go of a deep hurt, tell the priest and let him offer you words of comfort and guidance.
Times of Refreshment. Brothers and sisters, Scripture promises that we will experience "times of refreshing" when we turn to God in heartfelt and humble repentance (Acts 3:20). Through repentance, we are restored to an intimate relationship with God. Through repentance, our sense of dignity is restored. And through repentance, we are set free to love those around us with a renewed heart and a clean conscience.
According to St. Paul, "Where the Spirit of the Lord, is there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Make the decision to seek out God's mercy and forgiveness. Let the freedom of the Holy Spirit reign in your heart. Trust that every time you do turn to him in repentance, you will come away feeling washed clean from front to back, from top to bottom, and from head to toe.