It seems a silly question. After all, look at the world around us. Wars wage. Children starve. Human rights are violated. The question really should be “how can we ever spend a moment not penitent?”
But there is the other side. There are people who are so racked with guilt they can hardly function. Congregations have among them those who grew up being told they were awful children, that they would never amount to anything, that nothing good would ever come from them.
Granted these are extreme ends of the spectrum. But uneasy rests the pastor who speaks of penitence.
The question is not “What of penitence? Is it necessary? Clearly it is. But what does it mean to be penitent? What purpose does it serve?
I suggest penitence—or confession if you will—serves a similar function to the immune system in the human body. When a body is infected by a virus or bacteria, the body responds in a variety of ways to provide a remedy. None of the symptoms of infection are pleasant, but they serve a valuable purpose: They alert us that something is wrong so that we may take the necessary steps to recovery.
The felt need of penitence is the spiritual immune system in action. The pangs upon our heart when we see suffering or the world or the pang of guilt for some word uttered or omitted are indications that we much seek remedy. The remedy is recognition of grace and a life in the merciful care of God.
Theologian Karl Barth stated that “known sin is forgiven sin”. What this means to me is that: The moment we become aware of our sinfulness is the same moment we become aware of the gracious love of God in Jesus Christ. No one would like to live without the body’s immune system. Without symptoms we would not know something was wrong. The call to penitence is the symptom of our spiritual life, the symptom that leads us to turn again to the remedy of love.