Repentance v. Remorse

Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.

Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.

When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.


11 thoughts on “Repentance v. Remorse”

  1. Great post, thank you. It reminds me of the strand in The Shawshank Redemption where Red comes up time for time for parole, only to be refused: and at the very last interview responds not as a formula about “being rehabilitated” but by saying what he would say to his younger self. The play between “sorry” and “regret” is beautifully written.

  2. I am disturbed by the constant reference to showing whatever you want to call the offender’s feeling. It is very possible to be deeply repentant and also utterly paralysed by the realisation of the enormity of what one has done. In this case, no emotion is shown.

  3. I’m sorry, you are not understanding what I mean. Of course repentance frees us, but face to face with another person either accusing us or expecting a sign of emotional response, we are not always able to express the emotion. You may not have experienced this, but I assure you it happens. It is the same as when something like a death occurs. One person will cry easily and her grief is evident, while another, who is no less upset, will freeze and be unable to show her feelings. In other words, it is the expectation of a visible sign of repentance which disturbs me. Appearances can be deceptive.

    • I’m sorry I misunderstood you. Thank you for clarifying. Repentance, to my mind, has nothing to do with emotion as such but everything to do with the will, our determination to make good (as far as we can) what we have done wrong. It doesn’t depend on what another person expects of us. In fact, the expectations of others are irrelevant. I think that’s important to remember because the kind of person who demands an apology, etc, etc, has no interest in reconciliation or forgiveness. Fortunately, God does; he casts all our sins and the remembrance of them into the depths of the sea (Micah 7. 18-19). Trouble is, we’re not keen to follow his example.

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