Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Effects of Penance

The Season of Lent is now well underway and no doubt we have all faced some kind of temptation to give up on our commitments. It can be tough going, and sometimes we can even fool ourselves into thinking that giving things up for a prolonged period of time can be a real drudgery. But when this happens we need to bring ourselves back into check and remember that Lent is really a time of immense blessing. This is because it is a time of renewed focus and spiritual vigour. It is a preparation for the great Feast of Easter wherein we celebrate our union with the Resurrected Lord. But before we can be raised with the Lord, we first need to die with Him. And that is what Lent is about. It is about learning, in a deeper way, to unite ourselves with the Lord in His Passion – especially as we learn to die to ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matt 16:24).
We typically do this by taking up some form (or forms) of Penance during the Lenten Season. For example, we might give up a particular type of food that we really enjoy; or we might give up a specific activity so that we can spend more time in prayer or Scripture reading. Whatever we decide to do (or not to do) for Lent can be summarised into three broad categories, or “Acts of Penance”:
·         Prayer

·         Fasting

·         Almsgiving

But why Penance? Are Acts of Penance even effective? And if they are, what exactly do they effect?
There are principally two things that Acts of Penance effectively accomplish in the lives of Christians in a state of grace:

1)      They make satisfaction for our sins

2)      They help us to overcome our spiritual foes

Satisfaction for Sins
Some people might argue that these acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all external and really have no intrinsic value. Rather than external actions, we should be focussing our efforts on spiritual matters. But I would counter that these external acts are not merely external. Not only are they driven by a deeper desire for an internal spiritual transformation, but they also help to advance it.

Our sins, and their effects, have both internal and external (or physical and spiritual) elements. This is why, in the Confiteor during Mass, we confess that we have greatly sinned in our thoughts and our words; in what we have done and what we have failed to do. This refers to matters both internal and external; physical and spiritual. If we are to make satisfaction for our sins then, the Penance we do needs to correlate. So, Penance can never be only an internal thing – it also needs to be accompanied by outward actions.

So who does satisfaction need to be made to? Well, to whomever we sinned against. And who do we sin against? Well, first and foremost, when we sin, we sin against God (Ps 51:4). But we also sin against others and even ourselves. By virtue of the various acts of Penance, we actually provide the corrective satisfaction for each of these “persons” that we sin against, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
"Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms [of penance], fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others." (CCC # 1434).

How is this so?

·       Prayer – by spending time with the Lord, we make satisfaction for our sins against God

·       Fasting – by denying ourselves some form of good (e.g. food), we make satisfaction for the sins commit against ourselves

·       Almsgiving – by giving in love, we make satisfaction for our sins against others.

What is really amazing about this is that our Acts of Penance are not only beneficial to ourselves; but they can also be applied to the sins of others [see here for a previous blog where I discuss this further].

Overcoming our Spiritual Foes
Not only do the Acts of Penance make satisfaction for our sins, but they also help to foster holiness so that we might fight against future sin. As Christians in the Church Militant, our enemies have traditionally been categorised as the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The world – referring to the things around us that distract us from loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving our neighbour as ourselves.  
The flesh – the tendency of our human nature to pursue its own selfish desires and passions.

The devil – that great foe of mankind whose desire it is to try to lead humanity away from God in his own disobedience in which he and a third of the angels fell.
St. John gives us another way of categorising our spiritual foes in 1 Jn 2:16, where he calls our enemies the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.

How do the Acts of Penance help us to overcome these foes?

  • Prayer – Sacred Scripture reminds us that pride leads us to fall (Prov 16:18) just as it did the devil (Isa 14:12-15). When we are lifted up in pride, we fall into the same condemnation as the devil (1 Tim 3:6). Prayer is an act of humility in that we acknowledge we are not able to do things in our own strength. In this way, prayer counteracts our pride. And when we give ourselves to prayer, God gives us the grace and spiritual fortitude that we need to overcome the temptations of the devil.
  • Fasting – the best way to overcome our flesh is denying it some form of good. This is because by the denying of good, we learn discipline...and through this discipline, we become less prone to give into our fleshly desires so easily.   
  • Almsgiving the Tenth Commandment is that we should not covet any of our neighbours’ goods. We do this with our eyes when we see what others have and, out of a feeling of entitlement or even jealousy, desire it for ourselves. And it is this sin of covetousness that the world appeals to when it seeks to distract us from God by offering us its wares under the guise of wealth, fame, and power. Through the Act of Almsgiving, we esteem others better than ourselves, and rather that seek to gain we seek to give. In this way, we overcome the temptation of the world which feeds on our covetousness.

So, the effects of the Acts of Penance are that they make satisfaction for sins (our own, and even the sins of others) and they help us to overcome our spiritual foes. But if we dig deeper along these lines, we see that there is more to the story...

Our Acts of Penance only have merit insofar as they are united to the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, it is only because of the infinite merits of His Person and Work that any of our good works have merit at all. Jesus’ redemptive work on the Cross of Calvary makes ultimate satisfaction for sins, and it was through the Cross of Christ that the devil was vanquished (Heb 2:14-15). Therefore, it is only by being united to Christ that we are able to make satisfaction for sins and given the strength and grace to overcome our foes.
But, when we do unite our Acts of Penance with Christ’s redemptive work, by virtue of the fact that they are united to Him, they become meritorious...and through this we are made to share in His redemptive work. In the words of St. Paul, we are made co-workers together with Him (2 Cor 6:1). Co-workers of what? What was Jesus’ mission on this earth? To redeem Creation by defeating the devil, and making satisfaction for the sins of the world (e.g. 1 Jn 2:2; 1 Jn 4:10). If that was the Lord’s mission, and if we are made co-workers together with Him, then guess what? As co-workers united to Christ, our good works accomplish the same things!

So, as we continue along our Lenten journey together as the Body of Christ, may we constantly remind ourselves of the import of the sacrifices we are making. And in all that we say and do, may we continually unite ourselves to Christ so that our good works can have redemptive merit for ourselves and the sins of the whole world.


  1. Justin, this is a very nice penance primer. Thanks!

    1. Thanks George...

      As with all things Catholic, the more one digs into the depths of the graces God gives us, the more one realises how unfathomable they are.