When we go to confession, we always receive a penance to perform. It can be saying a few prayers, performing a small act of charity, or pretty much anything else the priest chooses. Whatever it is, the point is that even though our sins are forgiven, we’re not entirely off the hook yet. We still have to do a bit more to completely blot out the effects of our sins.
And to a lot of people, that doesn’t make much sense. The whole point of forgiveness seems to be that our sins are completely wiped out, so it’s tough to see why we should have to do anything else once we leave the confessional. To understand this better, I suggest that we turn to the Old Testament. There’s a story in it that shows the necessity of penance after forgiveness, and if we read it in conjunction with a careful reflection on human nature, we can see just why forgiveness alone isn’t enough.
The Story of David and Bathsheba
Back in the days of the ancient Israelite monarchy, King David, the model Israelite king, did something very bad (2 Samuel 11:1-12:14). One day, he was walking on his roof, and he looked out and saw a very beautiful woman taking a bath. Her name was Bathsheba, and she was the wife of a soldier in the Israelite army.
David was smitten, so he had his servants bring her to him so they could commit adultery together. As a result of their sinful union, Bathsheba became pregnant, and David tried to cover it up. He tried to get Bathsheba’s husband to return home and have sex with her so he would think the child was his, but the man refused to enjoy the comforts of home while his fellow soldiers were away enduring hardship.
In response, David decided to take an even more drastic measure. He had Bathsheba’s husband killed, and then he took her as his own wife. This despicable act displeased God, so he sent Nathan the prophet to confront David about the gravity of his sin.
Forgiveness and Penance
When King David finally admitted just how horrible his actions really were, he repented, and Nathan said:
“The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)
David was forgiven, but he wasn’t entirely off the hook. He still had to undergo some punishment: the child he conceived with Bathsheba was going to die. And the same is true for us today. We still need to do penance to atone for our sins even after they’re forgiven.
The Purpose of Penance
And why is that? Well, the basic idea is that sin deeply damages our souls. For example, it always makes it easier for us to commit more sins. Imagine a person who tells a lie for the first time. Since he’s never done it before, it’ll probably be tough for him. However, once he tells his first lie, his second one will be easier. And then his third one will be even easier, and so on and so forth.
In a nutshell, sin begets sin, and simply being forgiven doesn’t stop that cycle. God also needs to root out the damage it causes to our character, and he does that through our acts of penance. When we do penance, we reverse the damage our sins have done to us. Empowered by God’s grace, these acts help us to stop the cycle of sin and build up a virtuous character, one that’s strong enough to resist temptation when it comes.
That’s why God punished David even though he forgave his adultery and murder, and that’s also why we have to do penance after we leave the confessional. Forgiveness is an essential piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece. We also need to reverse the damaging effects of sin on our soul and build up a virtuous and loving character, and penance helps us do just that (cf. Hebrews 12:10).