There’s only been one time in my life I’ve actually tried to hurt my little brother.
I was about eight and I was so angry at him. I can’t remember why but let’s assume it’s because he’s a boy and they tend to be frustrating creatures.
We were riding our bikes on the patio and I decided enough was enough. I took one good, long look at him and, with great sisterly determination, I rammed my bike straight into his.
I broke his bike and he fell off. I thought he’d go spinning off but he just sort of thudded to the ground. He looked up at my with his pained, confused eyes… and I knew I’d done a horrible thing.
It won’t surprised you to learn that I get in serious trouble. I admitted what I’d done, said sorry and was sent to my room. For an goody-two-shoes like me, it was excruciating.
What is Penance?
I bet you didn’t even blink an eye at that, did you? That I received a punishment for doing wrong even after I’d confessed and been forgiven?
Of course you didn’t, that’s how families work. It’s the same in the family of God. In Catholic speak, getting sent to my room was my penance — or the temporal punishment for my sins.
Penance, properly defined, is how we “make satisfaction for” and “expiate” our sins after we have been forgiven. It’s our punishment and it’s the last element of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is how we “obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against Him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church.” (CCC #1442)
Penances tend to be things like praying (“say three Hail Marys and an Our Father”). Although they can be more complicated, priests are only supposed to impose penances that you can do straight away and that you know when you’re done.
Does Penance Earn Forgiveness?
Many non-Catholic Christians think penance is wrong.
Like, super wrong.
They argue that we shouldn’t be punished for our sins because we have already been completely forgiven through the Cross of Christ. We deserved to be punished with death but instead, God punished Christ in our place — so how can He punish us all over again? That would mean that Christ’s death didn’t really atone for our sins and we’ve got to do some extra credit to make up for it.
Penance, however, isn’t how we get forgiven for our sins, it’s how we learn not to sin.
Doing penance doesn’t earn our forgiveness.
I’m just going to repeat that. Penance DOESN’T earn forgiveness.
In fact, you can go to Confession, receive absolution (i.e. be forgiven by God through the ministry of the priest), not your received penance, and you are still 100% forgiven. I can’t recommend it but it’s technically legit.
That’s because the price for our forgiveness doesn’t come from our works or penances but from Christ. He is the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice for our sins, who washes away all our guilt by His Precious Blood. When, through the words of the priest, He says we’re forgiven, we truly are.
So why the penances then? If they don’t get us forgiveness, what on earth are they for?
Why Do Penance?
Penances are there to discipline us. Another word the Bible uses for punishment is discipline, which means teaching.
The author to the Hebrews writes that we should not despise the Lord’s discipline or get discouraged when we are punished.
God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? […] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Heb 12:7, 9-10)
Just like my parents forgave me but still punished me, so our Heavenly Father forgives us completely and still punishes us for our good. In the past, penances could be very severe. Today, they tend to be very gentle — but we can get more into that later. (It has to do with Indulgences which is everyone’s favourite topic!)
Like every good parent, God knows that a little punishment at the right time can do a world of good. The Council of Trent gives us four main reasons penance or punishment is good for us.
- Penance underscores the seriousness of sin, which we tend to gloss over.
- Penance makes us more cautious in the future because we’re naturally averse to any difficulty.
- Penance encourage good habits like prayer which help us not sin in the future.
- Penance conforms us to Christ who suffered for our sake, so we try to willing do so for Him.
Bringing it Back to the Family
Recently, my little brother totaled the family car. No one was hurt (thank God!) and unlike 8 year-old me, he didn’t do it on purpose. Again, the same pattern of confession–absolution–penance played out.
As punishment, he would have to pay for some of the costs and help dad with other round-the-house things. This, my dad explained, was so that he knew how serious it was, would be more careful in future, and would learn important skills (like how to sell a totaled car…) Don’t tell either of them I said this, but I think it brought them a sense of solidarity — that sort of manly solidarity of manshakes and mutual respect.
Seeing a pattern? ;)
Penance is a family thing. Through the Church, God extends His mercy to forgive us all our sins and punishes us for our good.
That is the wonderful proof that we are indeed, children of our loving Father.
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Pr 3:11-12)