As human beings, we possess real freedom as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and with this freedom comes true creative potential. That is, through an act of the will, we can bring into being new thoughts, words, and acts that have never existed before. In a real way, we can create an as yet nonexistent future through our choices.
Moreover, there is something about each human act that is irrevocable. Every word uttered, every action undertaken inevitably leaves an impression on the course of history. No action, no matter how badly one may desire it, can be undone or erased. And even deeds done in secret and hidden from the eyes of men, those acts seemingly without consequence, are seen by God and are present to him. Our choices have echoes both in time and eternity. The past cannot be undone.
This truth is at once comforting and terrifying. It is a hopeful thought in that every act of charity and mercy, even if unseen by men, is recorded forever in the mind of God. Love possess an eternal weight and significance; it is permanent in its effects. But likewise, it is a disquieting thought in that every evil thought or intention, every sinful action, every hurtful word, no matter how fleeting or insignificant, is likewise irrevocable. Scripture itself says we will give account for every idle word, a truth that should give us great pause.
The Secret of Repentance
What I’ve said to this point is true enough in the order of nature. Each act of the will is permanent and irrevocable. And yet it is not true in the order of grace. By grace, we can really change the past.
How? Through repentance. Through true repentance, we really can erase our sins. We can remove their blot from the record of history and begin again as a new creation. This is the miracle of Christ’s mercy.
Someone once said that, “he who excuses himself, accuses himself.” To the Christian, however, the opposite is true. He who accuses himself, excuses himself. When we acknowledge our guilt before God, he removes that guilt forever. He blots out our sins from the record of eternity.
The confessional used to be described as a sort of courtroom, but the strangest courtroom ever conceived. For it is the only courtroom in which a guilty plea is always met with complete pardon and the prisoner set free.
The Religion of Beginning Again
The Christian faith is the religion of beginning again, for it is the religion of the repentance and restoration. Even more, it is the religion of the resurrection. Never can we say definitively that we are finished, that there is no hope for us, for we serve the one who rose from the grave.
The power of the resurrection is ours when we repent, when we return to our Father and receive his mercy and pardon. No matter how many times we have fallen into spiritual death, we can be resurrected. In the confessional, we are born again and made new—a miracle as great as the first day of creation.
G.K. Chesterton once captured the miracle that is confession:
“[W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world…. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.” (Autobiography, 229–30)
Never despair. Never lose hope. Repentance restores all things. For we serve the God who makes all things new.