Repentance as Time Travel

Part 3 of a series beginning to see the light of day. 

Summary of Part 1: If we desire our lives to be meaningful, we must be rid of sin, for sin is that-which-ought-not-be, and no meaning can be riddled with that-which-ought-not-be and remain consistent meaning, as no story can contain absurdities that contradict the entire story while remaining a good story.

Summary of Part 2: If our sins were merely concrete moments in an unreachable past, we’d all be screwed. If time was strictly linear, that is, if events in the past were truly past, gone and done-away-with, then we wouldn’t have a hope of meaningful lives or good deaths. We would die, narratives full of contradictions, stories chockfull of stupid, irrelevant prose, having done what we ought not do. But time is not linear in the person. It’s wibbly-wobbly. The person sums up the past in his present. The person exists as a relation to his past, and in every moment he brings his entire past into the present. This is hardly a mystical doctrine: When you deal with a person you deal with their past, because their past is present in them.

Thus we have reason to hope that our sins may be dealt with, for our past is in our present, and we can act in the present. By acting in the present, we may change the past, which exists as a relation to the present moment and to the whole of our lives. As Max Scheler argues in his book On the Eternal in Man:

“We are not disposers merely of our future: there is also no part of our past which…might not still be genuinely altered in its meaning and worth, through entering our life’s total significance as a constituent of the self-revision which is always possible.” (40)

and that since

“the total efficacy of an event is, in the texture of life, bound up with its full significance and final value, every event of our past remains indeterminate in significance and incomplete in value until it has yielded all its potential effects…Before our life comes to an end the whole of the past, at least with respect to its significance, never ceases to present us with the problem of what we are going to make of itHistorical reality is incomplete and, so to speak, redeemable.” (40-41)

What’s needed is not simply an erasing of sin. Such “erasing” is impossible. There is no forgiveness that utterly removes sin from our existence, our past, our memory, and our relations with others. There is no repentance that simply renders the space-time of our sin blank, a non-event that never was and will never effect us again.

What’s needed is not simply temporal distance between the moment of sin and the present moment. The past is present in the person. The past sin does not fade away any more than the language taught during childhood fades away, any more than the effects of parental love fade away, any more than the whole cornucopia of formative life-events simply cease being formative after so many years. Stab whoever tells you that “time heals all wounds” in the eye.

Temporal distance may provide us with the illusion that the past has been changed. We may, and often do, refer to our sinful self at the moment of sinning as “our old self,” as if the mere passage of time, the mere fact of an event being “old” actually constitutes another self, a someone-else who bears the guilt of sin — certainly not me, feeling happy and wholesome right now. Having willfully written an awful and absurd break in our narrative, we entertain the illusion that we have since started a new book. But this is patently false. We only have one life to live. We only have one story to write. The self is singular, it contains its past, and in the hours of night when our faults come flooding, there is no comfort in the pretense of a duplicated self, old and new.

What’s needed must be more than moral restitution. Doing good deeds may restore the multitude of fragmented and broken relationships caused by a particular sin, but the mere fact of good deeds do not dissolve indwelling sin. If your past contains an absurdity, it contains an absurdity. No attempt at making up for the absurdity by fulfilling some cosmic balancing act of good and evil will undo this existential fact.

So if sin cannot be erased, “gotten over,” or made up for, what’s to be done about the needling agony of ought-nots, the pain of containing within ourselves that-which-ought-not-be? What’s needed is repentance, that radical act of spiritual time-travel which alters the past by putting it in right-relation with the whole of life.

Consider two of our favorite sinners, Augustine and Adam.

When we read Augustine’s Confessions, even the most pious of Christians is content to hear of his sexual indulgences, his petty sin, and the generally crappy acts that present themselves as ought-nots dwelling within him, for we know that “the full significance and final value” of Augustine’s sins are revealed in Augustine’s entire life, in his conversion from sin to holiness. Augustine becomes Saint Augustine. On its own, Augustine’s sin is no more than that-which-ought-not-be. In the context of Augustine’s entire narrative, it is that from which came Augustine’s holiness. Because Augustine repented, the quality of his past sin is changed.

Similarly, the Church calls the sin of Adam a felix culpa – a “happy fault.” How is this possible? Surely, Adam’s sin is sin, that-which-ought-not-be, miserable within him. How then, is his sin a happy sin? How does his sin — while still remaining a sin — undergo a qualitative change that makes it, not only bearable, but happy? It’s simple, really. Adam’s sin is called happy because it “won for us so great a Redeemer.” Adam’s sin has been woven into a narrative in which it becomes the ground and the reason for the saving action of Jesus Christ. “The full significance and final value” of his sin has been revealed to us, and it is Christ. His past sin is changed.

What’s needed to deal with sin, then, is an act that weaves our sins into the entire narrative of our existence, an act that qualitatively changes the nature of our past sin from an absurdity to an absurdity which serves as the fertile ground for our redemption — and therefore ceases to be absurd.

Repentance is characterized by a “repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed,” (CCC 1431) that is, an acknowledgment of sin as sin, as what-ought-not-be dwelling within us. It is neither justification nor erasing. It is not an eradication of our sins as life-events, but a dragging of our past sin into a new relation with the entirety of our life. This is why repentance entails “the desire and resolution to change one’s life.” (CCC 1431) If that-which-we-ought-not-have-done cannot be erased, it must be tied to a good which it subsequently serves, as ground from which the true life — the life lived as it ought to be lived, without the agony of the ought-not — blossoms.

Repentance is not only a turning away from a particular evil action, it is also, and primarily, a “radical reorientation of our whole life.” (CCC 1431) The human person, because he carries the past as present reality, reorientates his whole life, not just his present disposition. By pointing ourselves at the good with “the desire and resolution to change one’s life,” we point our past towards the good, we point our past sin towards the good, rendering it part of an overall upward strive towards towards a life well lived, and a damn good story, crippling it of its power to simply sit and breed guilt, a contradiction within us.

A sin is absurd. A sin considered as the grounds for redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness makes sense. It is transubstantiated into the precondition of a reconciled life. It becomes a part of a whole movement towards the good, a dark and painful chapter of an overall return to God, a return that consoles the painful by giving to it a sweet, final meaning, like a dawn that makes the dark but a canvas for the glory of the day. Sin is stripped of its power to hurt us, because it has been made the stepping-stone on path reorientated towards the good, towards what ought to be. Through repentance, our past evil actions bow and serve the good. Through repentance, every fault becomes a happy fault.

So be sorry for your sin, with the resolve to be good, and you will have changed the meaning and the significance of your past.

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  • JethroElfman

    Humbug. The reason for existence of the redemption trope is that repentance and forgiveness are not nearly enough to repair the dishonor brought upon you by your sins. It is your abhorrent actions that brought you to that lowly place, and it is only by actions of greater power that you can be redeemed. Evil must be overcome with good. Not goodness of thought, but goodness of word and deed.

    But take heart. Such redemption is only required for significant evil acts. For someone’s story to be worthy of telling, he can’t be so bland as to be without sin. You must have faults. Defects give you character; define your personality. It can be something as inane as clumsiness, for instance, but there has to be something. Rejoice in your sin! Revel in your petty misdeeds and base desires. They show your humanity. Your worth lies within your human nature, not this vain attempt to be rid of it.

    • Montague

      Humbug to you sir! Of course, Marc will explain later (by doctrinal necessity) how it is Divine Power which is the thing that effects the change (“blotting out of sin”).

      Christ is not a bland Character. God is not a bland character. If you think so, you are not reading the Bible the right-way-up, much less between the lines. Sin nature is intrinsically evil, such that it would not be false to say that I am an abomination under the daylight. It is my humanity which fights my inhumanity; and it is this struggle which makes history “a good read.” But if humanity looses, all that remains is a gibbering mass. And for morality to exist, it must be necessary to be virtuous to be fully human. Blossoming of humanity is in virtue, not in vice; even the pagans knew this.

      “Insignificant evil acts” – that is a non-existence. Such a thing does not exist.

    • JethroElfman

      Indeed Jesus was not bland. Neither was he bound within his perfection. Remember the wedding feast at Cana? To show one’s true nature, you must enhance the imperfections. Bring on the wine! All the better to encourage the pratfalls of one’s human nature. I think that the analogy He makes to being “wedding guests in the company of the bridegroom” wasn’t just allegory. He and the disciples would party into the night. Remember the feast of Passover? Wine wasn’t just an accessory. It was part of the ritual. Jesus didn’t discourage that. He enshrined it! You don’t need to be pure and holy. His religion was one for the sinner to come-as-he is. Naked and dirty and struggling, ever struggling to rise above the limits of the flesh. It isn’t being squeaky clean that matters. I laugh at your desire for purity. I mock your quest for righteousness. It’s the struggle to do better and the incremental accomplishments achieved which define your story as worthy.

      • Ben

        ” You don’t need to be pure and holy. His religion was one for the sinner to come-as-he is. Naked and dirty and struggling, ever struggling to rise above the limits of the flesh. It isn’t being squeaky clean that matters. I laugh at your desire for purity. I mock your quest for righteousness. It’s the struggle to do better and the incremental accomplishments achieved which define your story as worthy.”

        Every noble desire has a real end. Desires which are divorced from a real end are sins. To desire a righteousness which doesn’t exist is not different. You make men out to be hamsters running on a wheel: Rejoice in your futility, because this proves you are hamsters! Don’t you see? It’s the fact that this end for which we strive exists which makes our striving relevant. No amount of misconstruing Catholic theology (as if “His religion was one for the sinner to come-as-he is” is something we would dispute; goodness isn’t a precondition for forgiveness, but a product thereof) will change the fact.

    • JethroElfman

      The life of purity isn’t one that is a good story. There are plenty of people who have dressed in robes and hidden themselves away from society to preserve themselves. It’s only when they come out and actually do something that their lives become significant and meaningful. Living lives without sin accomplish nothing towards this end. The flexibility of body of the yogi. The artistry of the kung fu master. The teachings of the Dalai lama. Those are things to remember.

      Even Jesus. The sermon on the mount? Boring! He could have gone on for years blessing the meek and promising them the earth, and he would be unknown today. He came to fame by an action, not a word. It was driving the moneychangers from the temple that got him the attention that mattered. This singular, sinful, disruptive act of disobedience changed everything. Today, there’s only three of the ten commandments left that are still considered worthy of being made law. You can occupy the streets all you want, but step into the bank for your protest, and you will swiftly be brought to justice, as Jesus was. Will you argue that flogging the priests in the temple was not an act of sin? Smashing the tables? Spilling the money out? Unloosing the animals? It’s the kind of thing that in the days of the Deuteronomic Code I would expect them to have you executed for. Which is what happened. Ridding yourself of sin? Not if you want a meaningful life. You will do better with it.

      • Ben

        “Will you argue that flogging the priests in the temple was not an act of sin? Smashing the tables? Spilling the money out? Unloosing the animals?”


        “Ridding yourself of sin? Not if you want a meaningful life. You will do better with it.”

        Truth is more meaningful than intrigue. You could ask the Man himself:

        “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. And if thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire.”
        Personal holiness is the name of the game.

      • Dagnabbit_42

        Of course cleansing the temple was not an act of sin.

        If you set up a racketeering scheme down the street from a guy’s house, it’s of concern to that guy but not a direct offense against his property.

        If you set it up RIGHT IN his house, it’s a direct offense against his property, not to mention an insult.

        The moneychangers set up a racketeering scheme in Jesus’ personal property. The temple belonged to Him. He was the Son of Man (the messianic title from Daniel refers to the divine figure enthroned in Heaven and given all authority in Heaven and Earth), and the Son of Man is “Lord of the Sabbath.” How much more, Lord of the whole earth? How much more, Lord over that particular building which, out of all buildings on earth, was dedicated to the Sabbath and to the Lord of the Sabbath?

        Every property owner has just authority to evict unwelcome visitors. How much more unlawful and insulting visitors?

        Any less zeal for His Father’s house would have been a sin against His Father — and incidentally would have failed to fulfill the messianic prophecy that the messiah would cleanse the temple.

        Jesus certainly did not sin in overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Or, for that matter, on any occasion before or since. But that’s old news…even if it’s part of the good news.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      Who said anything about being rid of human nature? How is being less sinful anything like being “rid of” human nature?

      That is like saying that repairing and tuning-up a wrecked, neglected Ferrari is “being rid of the Ferrari.”

      You only get the full Ferrari-ness of a Ferrari when it’s in tip-top condition, tuned-up, and raring to go.

      Sin is like water in the fuel lines of human nature. The damage it does is like leaks in the oil pump, holes in the head gasket, air bubbles in the coolant system.

      Get rid of the sin, and you will see human nature as it was intended to be: The drama and single focus of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

      Even get rid of much of the sin (with, of course, the intent of eliminating it all; not with some half-hearted or hypocritical intent of keeping some of it), and you will see human nature very nearly as it was intended to be: All the exceptional individuality and surprising vitality of the lives of the saints. Does anyone really want to argue that Francis of Assisi was a bland character? That the world would have been more interesting, on average, without that unexceptional twit Mother Teresa? That the stories of human courage would have been no less had Dietrich Bonhoeffer never lived? That John Paul II forgiving his would-be assassin was less humane, less human, than if he’d let the guy rot unnoticed in prison? That — I’m taking a chance here in mentioning a person not yet passed on to eternity, but I think I like the odds — the integrity and faithfulness of Billy Graham somehow makes him less human?

      One problem with murderers and rapists and fornicators and gossips and thieves and dictators and liars is that they’re so much the same. The first time we see their evils we’re shocked because our instincts know that such things should not be, but the banality of evil eventually sinks in and, after the hundredth instance, we say, “Oh, THAT again” about even the most horrific deeds.

      Even heresies seem depressingly perennial, like ugly wide ties or skinny-at-the-ankle jeans: How often in history has “matter is bad, only spirit is good” risen in fifty guises? How often has “sex is the only joy but children are a drag” been sold to humanity as the latest true wisdom?

      But goodness? Self-sacrifice and generosity and compassion and courage? In each one, a human being lights up with some distinct luminosity all his own: His own personal wavelength selected from the colors of HUMANITY.

      No, no. Purity as an astringent thing, without love or joy, would indeed be a purely negative thing. But that is not Christianity. Christianity never negates the world as if the world were a bad thing. Christianity loves God above all else so that the world, no longer idolized, should become the fullness of what it was intended to be, seen for its beauty through God’s eyes and loved fully with the love of Christ’s sacred heart.

      Likewise Christianity purifies humanity of its sin, not so that it should lose its humanity, but so that its humanity might finally shine like silver, freed from the tarnish.

      I grant that the killing of sin within us feels rather like the killing of us, because it has so well entangled us. It’s like chemotherapy that way. We must “carry the cross” and “die to self.” This sounds very much like we’re the one who’s getting killed.

      But this deadly-sounding language speaks of the radical seriousness of the surgery, not of its intended outcome. God is surgically removing sin and repairing the damage it has done, not so that the humanity in us should be killed, but so that it should finally become alive. We “die to self” so that the perfected humanity in us can be raised to fullness of life. Dying to sin is not the end of the story; Rising to perfected love and joy is the end of the story.

      Humanity, along with human nature, was created “very good”: Its eschatological destiny is even better.

  • Kovaci

    When men go to confession to a woman, then they, the men, will understand why women want/need to be priest.

    • Ben

      “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”
      Avoiding the discussion of means for the sake of asserting the ends without any logical foundation always strikes me as shifty. Call me paranoid.
      No, really. Do it.

  • Donovan

    Great post really clears up any questions I had about confession.
    I go any time I need it but there are some days when I doubt its power. But this really cleared it out.

  • Kristi

    This series has been fantastic, thank you.

  • Scott

    Great stuff, inspired me to go to confession yesterday, and hopefully more often than in the past.

  • Joshua Villarreal

    Phenomonal. Thank you for your witness. I think these have been the best you have ever written.

  • JethroElfman

    I’ve been waiting for chapter 4, with a strong ending. It’s coming is it. So that’s it then? Go to confession? You may have as well said, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”.

    Confession misses the whole point of who is injured by sin. You pulled your sister’s hair, and who is hurt? You are! You are now dirtied by the sin of your wrong action. Your whole life story is sullied. God is hurt too! He has prepared a banquet and cannot countenance dirty sinners to sit at the table. …but you can go to confession. Congratulations! You are clean again. Go you!. God isn’t mad at you anymore. Go God!. Notice something missing? A damn good story is one of redemption; where by your actions you have made it up to your sister. Your cleanliness is irrelevant. God’s forgiveness is irrelevant. It is your sister’s forgiveness that is the only thing that should matter. Only if you can gain that do you die a good story.

    • Joseph

      I think this is a case of a Catholic “Both… and”, not an either or. Christ says in Matthew:

      23“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
      24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

      Confession isn’t intended to change the reality that you hurt another person, it’s to reconcile yourself, to acknowledge fully that what you did was evil, and to “firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, do penance, and amend my life. Amen.” I think someone who says, while apologizing to me, that they have sworn to God not to commit that evil again, and undergone the humiliation (in it’s proper sense) of confession to a priest, is off to a good start in my book as far as gaining my trust and healing our relationship.

      It also seems somewhat sick in my mind to let a person be controlled by the will of another to forgive them. People hold grudges. Many don’t forgive even personal errors that weren’t even related to them in the first place.

      Confession is about transforming sin and guilt into something life transforming, something that reminds us we aren’t perfect, and that propels us into a more perfect life. Reconciliation of the relationship is a part of this if it is authentic repentance I believe, but our reconciliation with God and ourselves, as well as others around us, isn’t necessarily contingent upon being granted the other person’s forgiveness. Both are important, and both make us virtuous people by holding ourselves accountable to another person, admitting we have done evil and sinned, and enlisting them as witnesses to either our redemption, or further depravity.

      As a side note… Often we don’t have the opportunity to right our wrong with another person, for any number of circumstances. I think it is wrong to say that a person never be granted life changing redemption from sin simply because of “logistics.” I think we want more people transforming their evil and sin into virtue rather than less.

  • Santiago
  • lilbit

    I really liked these posts. I hadn’t read anything of yours until someone sent me the article about duckface, but these are much more interesting to me. (and you have Doctor Who references!)

    I wonder how this can connect with the concept that God exists outside time, knows everything we will do, yet still has given us free will? I was discussing this with someone who insisted that God’s knowledge of our future choices couldn’t be true, because that would negate free will, and while I don’t think that is a good argument, I had no answer other than ‘God exists outside time’.

    • ladycygnus

      “To observe someone doing something and to act accordingly does not stop that person from making the choice to do the action.” That’s the best I got, and I’ve gotten *close* during discussions with an atheist. It actually came down to “if *I* {the atheist} were God and I knew Joe was going to do something evil I would stop him from doing the evil thing.”

  • Kathryn Kelly

    Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

    This is a commandment. The word ‘Justice’ is repeated twice to emphasize its importance.

    It is quite a notion that ‘sin’ is what one does. I would challenge y’all to consider that ‘sin’ is also what one does not do. Not righting the wrongs that exist is sin. When people do not challenge a perverted societal norm, it is sin.

    How individuals act to right the wrongs around us is individual. One might volunteer at a soup kitchen, write letters to the editor of your local newspaper, or protest an outrage.

    Some might even act as a court monitor to help prevent the court from ripping children away from good mothers because abusive husbands do not want to pay child support. (One very good woman, more educated and more loving toward her children, did not see her youngest child from the age of 6 until he was 17
    because the ‘fix’ was in.)

    That ‘Organized Crime’ exists even in our court rooms is inexcusable. Justice and the ‘love of God’ are neglected. (Lk 11: 42)

    The Psalm for Wednesday:
    On the fourth day of the week the Levites would recite this Psalm in the Temple:

    “God of retribution, Lord, God of retribution appear.
    Judge of the Earth, give the arrogant their desserts.
    How long, Lord, How long shall the wicked exult?
    They pour out arrogance, swaggering, boasting.
    They crush Your people, Lord, they oppress your very own.
    Widows and strangers they slay; orphans they murder…..

    Are you allied with the seats of wickedness,
    those who frame injustice by statute?
    They organize against the righteous,
    they condemn the innocent to death.”
    Psalm 94:1-6, 20-21

    When pornography, white slavery, and child abuse exist, while MEN turn their heads and refuse to act……..the stench reaches the nostrils of God; and the odor is like menstrual rags.

    We can pray. We can philosophize about sin, confession, repentance, and restoration until we are blue in the face. For that matter, we can question, “How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?”

    God gave us ‘The Law’ and ‘The Prophets’ for guidance.

    In the meantime, unless MEN stand up and ‘repair our world’, God smells the stench of wickedness.

    Only with action may we, as a people, be as a sweet fragrance unto God.

  • Marie

    This article has really shown me the power and beauty of confession, and helped me make a good confession this advent.

  • Collin237

    This doesn’t make sense. Repentance doesn’t change the past. It changes the future, by preventing your possible repetition of the sin.

    The existence of a linear, unstoppable, irreversible flow of time is the best evidence we have that the symmetric laws of physics are not all there is to the universe. By denying this aspect of nature, you are severely limiting the space for faith. You are also delegitimizing the need for us all to face and try to remedy the adverse consequences of our actions.