I’m not sorry

The problem with repenting is that it is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s emotional. To repent, one must feel penitent.

Let’s say you’ve done something “wrong” or “sinful.” It may be a one-off incident or a habit you have developed. But you felt good about doing it. Not that you justified or rationalized your way into doing something; you really didn’t feel it was wrong at the time. Then, when the consequences come home, you realize that what you have done is harmful.

Here’s the problem: you may still feel that you were in the right. You may be sorry there resulted in some negative consequences, but you’re not sorry for what you did. You don’t feel that you were wrong. How can you repent when you don’t feel like repenting?  (There is another class of sin where you know you are wrong as you are doing it, but do it anyway, either through perversity or a feeling of helplessness. That is not the focus of this discussion.)

We’re often told to go through the motions, to fake it until you make it, but it seems that in the case of repentance, feeling penitent is required. We’ve all seen public figures caught out in scandals offer insincere-sounding apologies. While we recognize the need for them to go through the formality of apologizing, because we generally see that as formality, not as true contrition, we continue to disapprove of them.

Or perhaps you’ve dealt with squabbling children, or remember being a quarreling child. You are forced to apologize, to say “sorry” like you mean it, but either your capacity for sympathetic imagination is poor, or you’re still caught up in your own sense of self-righteous indignation, because you in no way feel sorry and you have no intention of possibly feeling so until the other person grovels for their injustice to you. It’s hard to imagine a less sincere apology, but we’ve all likely forced out the grudging words “I’m sorry” in such circumstances. Such a performance may help hostilities pass, but bears only a superficial resemblance to one of the steps of repentance.

I’m sure we must all have our own quiet, private sins. Some of them we just learn to live with, a burden we’ve become so accustomed to carrying, we forget that it would even be possible to set it down. And sometimes, we’re forced to confront our actions and recognize them as sinful. But that’s not enough. We can’t just know that we’ve done wrong; we have to feel it. That can be hard to do. How do you change how you feel?

Is it the atonement? That you call on Christ, not just to heal your hurt, but to allow you to feel the pain of your injury? We must give our will over to God, but that’s an intellectual proposition; we know we must try to do what we think He requires of us to do regardless of how we feel. But this is asking more: we must choose to give up that which makes up autonomous, that which makes the stoic free. We must also give over how we feel. We must be willing to feel bad, to feel our wrongness. And once we are granted that bitter grace, then we can begin to honestly repent.

What can be more profound and terrible than this requirement? For it is not just that we are willing to give away our sins to know God; it’s that we deny how we feel about our choices and actions, rejecting our own interpretation of our experiences. What is our self, other than that living memory of what we’ve done and how we feel about it? To repent, we must deny that very core of what the self is. And somehow, upbuilding lies in the thought, that before God, we are always in the wrong (Kierkegaard, Either/Or).

19 comments for “I’m not sorry

  1. I’m not sure I’m following you, but I’m pretty sure you’ve misspoken here: “But this is asking more: we must choose to give up that which makes up autonomous, that which makes the stoic free.” God has never asked us to give up what makes us autonomous, which is agency. I think what you mean is that He asks us to use our agency to choose to follow Him. This very important difference was the cause of the “war in heaven”. And it’s not a single decision, it is a decision we make a thousand times a day. Far from whatever is the opposite of autonomous.

  2. I realize that the common formulations of repentance (e.g. the “five steps of repentance” or the “five r’s of repentance”) that we use in the church often include a step that the repentant soul must feel sorrow or regret. But I wonder if this is a modern idea, not one that is necessarily essential to the concept of repentance.

    Ezekiel’s formulation of repentance doesn’t include any such idea, and is solely act-based: the soul that sins shall die regardless of his past righteousness, but the soul that does good shall live, regardless of his past sin. Repentance in Ezekiel seems to be simply turning away from sin.

    The Doctrine and Covenants classic “confess and forsake” formulation arguably, also doesn’t include any element of regret or sorrow. “Confess” might imply some such element, but I think a more natural reading of the word is that it is perfectly possible to confess that you have sinned by simply recognizing it as an intellectual matter. Of course, the confession must be sincere, but I’m not sure that sincerity requires emotional guilt.

    Paul does, of course, speak of godly sorrow, but my reading is not that godly sorrow is a necessary element of repentance, but rather that it is one way that a person can be motivated to repent and seek forgiveness. A person might also be motivated by an intellectual recognition that he or she has done wrong and must change without necessarily feeling emotional guilt. (Somewhat parallel to Alma’s distinction between those that humble themselves and those that are compelled to be humble).

    On the other hand, the scriptures in many places speak of offering a broken heart and a contrite spirit. This could imply sorrow/guilt for sins. I would argue that it is possible to have a contrite spirit without feeling emotional guilt by simply recognizing one’s own sinfulness. To us moderns, the idea of a broken heart seems to indicate pretty clearly a need for emotional sorrow. But I don’t know if this is a 20th century idea or if it would have meant something different in the ancient world.

    To my mind, the danger in teaching that emotional sorrow is necessary for repentance (or, even worse, that it is the chronological first step of repentance) is that many people who honestly don’t feel emotional guilt, but honestly recognize their guilt as an intellectual matter will conclude that because they don’t feel emotional guilt, they are incapable of repentance and give in to the sense of hopeless that is bracketed in the original post. Also, what of the sociopath who is constitutionally incapable of feeling emotional regret, but may recognize his sinfulness as an intellectual matter and choose to forsake it not because he feels internally that it is right, but because he has learned that it is right? Is he beyond salvation? I don’t think so.

    To me, it makes more sense to think of the broken heart not as the first step of repentance, and perhaps not as a step of repentance at all, but perhaps rather as something that the Lord gives us when he forgives us, which allows us to fully rejoice in gratitude and to retain in remembrance our guilt and our gratitude for forgiveness.

    Sorry for leaving such a long comment. This is a thought-provoking post.

  3. Or maybe whoever told us something was sinful was wrong, and that’s why we don’t feel the remorse.

  4. Sin and transgression is what separates us from God. The remorse comes when we recognize what we have done separates us from God. Even if you thought you were right at the time, it takes a particular type of humility to recognize that something you have done in ignorance has effects, for others if not yourself, and feel sorrow for those effects.

    Even though I was commanded to divorce my ex, there was a great deal of repentance I had to go through . . . and still have to go through . . . because the pain of my marriage had separated me, and the marriage and divorce affected my children. Repentance isn’t just making good or paying back. It is the process by which we become reconciled to God, and the place of the Atonement in healing the effects of our sins AND our mistakes.

  5. I love it when the responses are better than the original post. Jimbo, perhaps we give up the illusion of autonomy in favor of true freedom.
    JKC, you bring up great points. Confession and contrition are not the same, even though we often conflate the two. Of course, once we detach an emotional sorrow from repentance and rely on a more deontological approach to repentance the problem of internal and external motivations arise.
    D. Michael, that’s entirely possible. But if you see that your actions cause harm to others, then there has been some sort of violation that you are accountable for. That’s why we make our kids apologize for the accidental injuries they cause each other.
    SilverRain, the hope of reconciliation to God is what gives meaning to our suffering and gives us the possibility of peace in sorrow. We pay a high price for it, but we have to hope it will be worth it.
    Cameron N, I like several points in that talk, including the idea that the invitation to repent is an expression of love and that we must commit obedience. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. That’s my defintion of true “sin”: demonstrable harm to someone. As opposed to a checklist of naughty-naughties that some authority imposes.

    But intent also comes into play. Deliberately intending to do harm: an obvious sin. Intending to do something good that results in an unforeseen negative result? That will always happen because our understandiong of cause and effect isn’t perfect.

    But that excuse will only play once. I’ve often seen people do something under the guise of “I’m only trying to help,” but it results in making things worse, who do not learn from the experience and continue to keep “only trying to help” because they’ve got it stuck in their mind that it’s a good thing to do. Usually because some authority told them so.

    The first incident is not a sin. Subsequent incidents are.

  7. JKC,

    You brought up some great examples where “regret” might not be necessary for repentance, but what about the matter of us being told we will be rewarded/judged according to “the desires of our heart”? If we merely confess a wrong deed/habit/whatever but don’t think we were wrong for doing it, does our heart still see that sin as a good, and lead to a lesser reward/harsher judgment?

    For example, I have a temple-married friend who cheated on his wife, left her, and was excommunicated. He told me during the whole scandal that he knew he was wrong, but he was going to go through with the divorce and later be rebaptized. He is working on that rebaptism thing now. By your remarks it would seem he could merely acknowledge that he was wrong to repent. I admit that is all that the Church leaders can go by, but is that all the LORD requires? Can he look back, happy with his decision but acknowledging it was sinful, and still have acceptance with the Lord? Does he not have to come to have a remorse for the sin? a FEELING of having done wrong, rather than just saying it?

  8. In his teaching to his son Corianton, Alma indicates the value of sorrow is if it moves us to repent. There may be other things that move us to repent, too. But sorrow might be one of them. (Other consequences might help in that way, too.)

    King Benjamin teaches that the great weakness of humans is being the natural man, an enemy to God — full of pride, full of I-know-best-for-me. Submission to God is the way to overcome the natural man. So every incident of “naturalness” (in King Benjamin’s definition) is a cause for repentance. But as long as we are under the influence of the natural man, we will not feel sorrow. It’s not until we submit to God that we’ll recognize that we have not been in His presence, under His influence.

    I remember when I was a bishop, a mother sent her son to see me because he had misbehaved with his girlfriend. Mom wanted me to chastise him and get him to change. Mom didn’t understand that he had no plan to change at that time (he told me so). Eventually he changed. Eventually he was ready to soften his heart and repent. In the meantime, there were steps I took as bishop with him, but the real repentance, he had to wait until he was ready.

    It’s interesting that in 12-step programs, participants go through a lengthy self-inventory in which they identify their character flaws before seeking to repent of them. They do not respond to others’ call for their change of heart, but rather they seek God’s help in changing their hearts before they begin the inventory, and then they seek God’s help in removing the shortcomings thereafter. And then they seek to make amends.

  9. “If we merely confess a wrong deed/habit/whatever but don’t think we were wrong for doing it”

    See, I would not characterize that as true confession. I think confession entails not just confessing that we did something, but confessing that what we did was wrong (and meaning it, of course). I just don’t think that a particular emotion is truly necessary to confess that what I did was wrong, and mean it. I think it is possible to have the humility to accept that what we did was wrong even if we don’t feel emotional guilt over it. “I don’t feel bad, but I confess that it was wrong and I repent even though I don’t feel bad about it” is different from “I confess that I did it, but I don’t think it was wrong.”

    I guess my point is that we can’t really force ourselves to feel something (and even if we could, would it be sincere?). And for me, asking people to try to force themselves to have an emotion runs dangerously close to the EFY testimony meeting mistake of whipping oneself up into a frenzy of emotion and declaring it to be a spiritual experience rather truly experiencing the spirit.

    Of course, another way of solving the I-can’t-force-a-feeling problem is the one suggested in the original post: that the atonement does what we cannot by creating honest feelings of sorrow that we didn’t honestly feel before. The trouble with that, for me, is that it seems to create a sort of catch-22: the atonement supplies the emotion that is necessary to experience true repentance, but true repentance is how you access the atonement in the first place (at least that’s how we traditionally teach it), so you can’t get the emotion you need to experience true repentance until you have experienced true repentance.

    Then again, one way out of the catch-22 is if the atonement begins working for us immediately when we honestly confess and determine to forsake, thus supplying the broken heart that we must have as a condition to obtain forgiveness. I’m not sure that, functionally, that is all that different from saying that, as I suggested in my earlier comment, repentance is complete upon honest confession (whether accompanied by emotional guilt or not) and that the reward of repentance is simultaneously both forgiveness and a broken heart. It seems like little more than a difference in semantics, because in my experience, the neat chronologies that we create in our models of the salvation process rarely map closely onto the process as we live and experience it. I guess I don’t have a problem with saying that sorrow is necessary for repentance as long as it is followed up immediately with an affirmation that the sorrow that is necessary is not something that you can force that it comes only as a gift of god.

  10. “But as long as we are under the influence of the natural man, we will not feel sorrow.”

    This is another way of putting the catch-22 problem I referred to. If I can’t feel sorrow until I submit to God through repentance, and sorrow is necessary to repent, than how can I ever repent? I think confession in spite of lack of emotional guilt (and by confession I mean not just confessing that I did something, but confessing that by doing it I have committed and offense to God) is precisely submitting to God. “Doing that did not make me feel bad, but I submit to you because your ways are higher than my ways and your judgment tells me that what I did was wrong, so I confess that I have sinned. I reject my own feelings on the matter and trust in your judgment.”

  11. JKC,

    the difference in the two statements is real.

    “I don’t feel bad, but I confess that it was wrong and I repent even though I don’t feel bad about it” is different from “I confess that I did it, but I don’t think it was wrong.”

    My friend though acknowledges that he knew he was doing something wrong, but he choose to do it because he couldn’t stand his wife any longer. So even today he will say that he made the right choice, despite it being the immoral one. So he acknowledges the sin in the choice, but because he feels it helped him get away from a miserable situation he feels it was the right one and would do it again. So he seems to fit into your first statement

    “I don’t feel bad, I know I did something sinful, I won’t do it again, but I think I was right for doing it the first time.”

    Is the repentance or not? He confesses the sin and commits himself not to do it again… but doesn’t feel remorse for having done it, and says it was the right thing to do. Is that a “change of heart”? or just a change in circumstances?

  12. In cognitive therapy, one of the core concepts is learning to identify and correct inaccurate or unhelpful ideas. This seems to bear some similarity to the central focus of the Gospel approach to repentance.

  13. Wondering if psychological type/temperament makes a difference?

    Some “thinkers” are distrustful of feelings and don’t think they matter near as much as this makes out.

  14. Psychopaths make up 3% of the male population and 1% of the female. They do not feel guilt or empathy. I am sure there are really good members of the Church holding all sorts of callings that are psychopaths. When they repent it is purely an intellectual exercise.

  15. The OP presents a very thought provoking take on this process, especially the notion of “quiet, private” sins.

    Re 15, I don’t think that one has to be a psychopath to not feel things as deeply as Rachel describes, nor is their repentance merely an intellectual exercise.

    To a thinker, “feelings” are ephemeral, not to be trusted. What matters is facts, measurable indicators. As far as repentance, changing behavior is a measurable indicator. If one analyzes their behavior, comes to the logical conclusion that they are wrong, and changes their behavior to be aligned with God’s will, have they repented? Or not, because it wasn’t based on a feeling?

    Certainly pain is part of the repentance process. But I am not sure if pain is a feeling or an experience that can be measured, like getting wet.

    I do know that there are a lot of things at church that I don’t feel, but do anyway out of humility and obedience and having learned from others. Take the issue of women sitting alone at Relief Society: I truly don’t empathize with why that is a problem. I personally like sitting alone, time to reflect and fewer distractions. But I understand intellectually from having talked with others that many sisters feel bad and left out to be sitting alone. So I do go up to people sitting alone and talk to them. I don’t think that the act is less meaningful because it is based on thinking rather than feeling.

  16. Jax,

    “but doesn’t feel remorse for having done it, and says it was the right thing to do.”

    For me, these are two separate concepts. Saying “it was the right thing to do” does not seem consistent with confession, while not feeling remorse for it may be consistent with repentance, if remorse is defined as the OP suggests, as emotional guilt.

    Of course, I can’t reach any conclusion as to your friend’s sincerity. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that he repents of the action (cheating on his wife) but does not regret the decision to cheat on his wife because it ended a marriage and ultimately made him happier. Whatever the merits of that reasoning in his particular case, it does seem, interestingly, to somewhat parallel Eve’s statement after being cast out of the Garden: “Were it not for our transgression . . .” Eve’s decision to eat the fruit was disobedient, and disobedience is sin, but we celebrate that decision because of its positive effects. Did Eve need to feel emotional guilt for eating the fruit in order to be forgiven? She sure doesn’t seem to express feeling any in the versions of that story that we accept. She is told that her sorrow will be greatly multiplied in childbirth, but I don’t see how that creates the kind of emotional guilt referred to in the OP.

    But to bring it back to the original point that you raised (which I now realize I never really addressed), I don’t see the principle that we will be judged by the desire’s of our heart as requiring emotional guilt as a condition of forgiveness. I can desire in my heart to do good and to forsake sin without necessarily feeling a particular emotion about it. It would be a different story if the scripture said that we would be judged not only by the desires of our hearts, but by the emotions of our hearts.

  17. Again I will repeat that some people are not capable of feeling “bad” for committing a sin. Some are indeed born without that part of the human experience possible. Check here on political psychopaths: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTA4b5IAARE

    Some people feel guilty for stepping on an ant while others feel nothing working in an American government torture chamber. However, all are capable of KNOWING right from wrong and trying to live in accordance with the Gospel.

  18. I’ll come at this from a tangential way, and hopefully I’ll say something of value.

    I think that part of the issue (I don’t know if I’ll say “part of repentance…”…so I’ll just say “the issue”) is recognizing cause and effect. Like, take this:

    Let’s say you’ve done something “wrong” or “sinful.” It may be a one-off incident or a habit you have developed. But you felt good about doing it. Not that you justified or rationalized your way into doing something; you really didn’t feel it was wrong at the time. Then, when the consequences come home, you realize that what you have done is harmful.

    The issue is that cause and effect are not immediate. So, when you’re doing something, you believe that it’ll have certain effects (and in the short term, it may have those effects). But down the road, “the consequences come home,” and the further effects are known.

    The issue is that depending on the gap, one doesn’t closely associate the negative/harmful effects with the cause. Or, depending on the gap between people (e.g., if I harmed *someone else* but didn’t really harm *myself*, then it’s very difficult to relate to that), even when one intellectually understands the harm related to the cause, they don’t really care as much because it’s not *them* but the other guy.

    Anyway, I think that when people come to understand cause and effect (which isn’t necessarily something that is easy to learn), then they will understand that if they want to change certain effects, they have to change certain causes.

    Maybe this is a frivolous example, but I’ll use it. When someone really annoys me (or even makes me angry), I just want to give them all I’ve got. I don’t mean this physically (because I recognize the legal consequences thereof…but I think that for some people, they might escalate the situation physically.) Rather, I mean that i want to argue with them. I want to shoot down all of their arguments. I want to make them look like a fool in the process.

    At the time, I convince myself that it will make me feel better if I can do this. That whether or not they believe me, I will feel better for having spoken my part.

    …the issue is that 1) giving in to that urge actually doesn’t make me feel better, and 2) it burns bridges down the road, making me enemies.

    As long as I was unaware of these consequences, I would keep doing it…and then I would wonder why I felt angry all the time…and why people challenged me all the time. I would want to not be angry and I would not want to be challenged, but I didn’t connect cause and effect, and more that that, I wanted to be *right*. I wanted to be *vindicated*.

    But when I realized that cause and effect nature, that changed the way I looked at things, and gave me motivation to change. But here, it wasn’t a “go through the motions” sort of change…it was a, “I know this change is worth it to improve myself and reach my goals.”

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