Should we regret our sins?


Should we regret our sins?

When the apostle Peter realized what he had done by denying Christ, he "wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:75). A few weeks later, on Pentecost day, he reminded the residents of Jerusalem how scandalous it was that Jesus, an innocent man, was executed. "Hearing this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘What are we to do, brothers?’" (Acts 2:37). Regret clings to wrongdoing like a shadow we can get rid of only with difficulty.

Regret is ambiguous. It can make us sink into despair or lead to repentance. Disappointed in himself, Peter could have despaired. There is a "worldly kind of sorrow that brings death." But recalling Christ’s love for him changes Peter’s tears into "God’s sorrow, that ends in repentance and salvation with no regrets" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Regret for him was a transitional stage, a narrow gate that led to life. Sorrow that leads to death, on the other hand, is the vexed regretting of someone who only trusts in his or her own capacities. When these are found to be insufficient, such individuals begin to feel contempt and even hatred for themselves.

It may be impossible to repent without feeling some regret. But the difference between the two is enormous. Repentance is a gift from God, a hidden activity of the Holy Spirit that draws a person to God. I do not need God to regret my mistakes; I can do that by myself. Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, "dispels my sins like the morning mist" (Isaiah 44:22).

"To sin" means "to miss the mark." Since God made us so that we may live in communion with him, sin is separation from God. Regret can never liberate us from this distance from God. If it leads us to withdraw more into ourselves, it can even bring us further away from God and thus intensify our sin! As Jesus put it in words that remain somewhat enigmatic, sin is "that they do not believe in me" (John 16:8). The root of sin, the only sin in the deepest sense of the term, is lack of trust, not opening ourselves to the love of Christ.

A woman came to see Jesus one day. She was weeping, and washed his feet with her tears. Whereas others were scandalized, Christ understood and admired her. That woman regretted her errors, but her regret was not bitter; it did not paralyze her. She trusted and forgot herself. And Jesus said, "Her sins, though they were many, have been forgiven: she has shown much love" (Luke 7:47). On the strength of these words, she had nothing to regret. Who could regret having loved greatly? By the grace of God, our sins can lead us to love more. And then regret should turn into gratefulness: "Give thanks for everything at all times" (Ephesians 5:20).

What is original sin?

Ever since life appeared there has been the enigma of death. In the animal world death may seem natural, but for human beings it has always been a question. Why do those we love go away for good? We want to have a happy life, without our happiness suddenly coming to an end. For this reason, since the beginning of time the longing for a happy life has given rise to different representations of a "golden age" when "everything was still fine." The stories that deal with this topic attempt to explain how death appeared in the world.

The Bible draws from these traditions. The Book of Genesis begins by celebrating the original goodness of creation (chapters 1 and 2). Then it brings the troubles of life, especially death and fratricidal violence, into relationship with wrongs committed at the beginning (chapters 3 and 4). But what is striking in the Biblical account is that these original sins are identical to our own sins: the refusal to trust in God, telling half-truths to justify oneself, projecting one’s faults on others, not taking responsibility for one’s acts. Without answering the question of why evil exists, the Book of Genesis turns the responsibility over to each reader. We are Adam or Eve, Cain and Abel.

In the New Testament, original sin becomes a more explicit concept. For the apostle Paul, Adam represents the unity of the human race and Adam’s fault means that, insofar as sin is concerned, there is no difference among human beings: "All are subject to sin, as it is written: Not one of them is upright, not a single one" (Romans 3:9-10). But Paul is only interested in Adam because this enables him to speak of the impact of Christ, which is just as universal, or even more so, than the contagion of sin: "If death came to the multitude through the offense of one man, how much greater is the effect God’s grace has had, coming to so many and so plentifully as a free gift through the one man Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:15).

Speaking about original sin is thus a way of saying that salvation is universal before being individual. Christ did not come to snatch a few individuals out of an evil world, but to save humanity. All are sinners, their hands empty before God. But God offers the gift of his love to all. "God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). What Christ did "brought justification and life to all humanity" (Romans 5:18). No one, by their own abilities, can find a way out of the blind alleys that are the common destiny of all humankind. But through Christ humanity is saved, and each person can then welcome this salvation into his or her life.

Jesus referred to original sin in his own way: "From the human heart evil intentions emerge: sexual immorality, theft, murder…" (Mark 7:21). And yet he did not condemn very much; he was compassionate. When we become aware that every human being experiences the wound of sin, perhaps we too become more merciful. In the steps of Jesus, we are called to bring healing rather than to denounce pitilessly. It is not a question of downplaying the seriousness of evil, but of knowing that there is no sin that Christ did not come to take away by giving his life on the cross.

Letter from Taizé: 2003/5

Last updated: 17 August 2004