The Virtue Of Pennance
“Penance is a supernatural moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sin as an offense against God and to a firm purpose of amendment and satisfaction. The principal act in the exercise of this virtue is the detestation of sin, not of sin in general nor of that which others commit, but of one’s own sin. The motive of this detestation is that sin offends God: to regret evil deeds on account of the mental or physical suffering, the social loss, or the action of human justice which they entail, is natural; but such sorrow does not suffice for penance.” 1
Penance means an about-turn in our lives.
That is what helps us to turn towards God. God has to see that a man chooses Him before He can forgive his sin. God doesn't force anyone to accept what he does not want. God has given you a free will. If you don't want what He offers, He won't thrust it down your throat. The Bible says that Jesus stands at the door of your heart and knocks. He waits for you to open the door because He is a gentleman. He will never force you to do anything that you don't want. He wants you to respond to His invitation.
To be united with Christ is something like getting married. Here is a man who says 'Yes, I am willing to marry you' to a girl, but the marriage is not complete until the girl also says, 'I am also willing.' When both express their willingness, then only does the marriage take place. Now a man may have said he wants to marry the girl and he may have to wait five years before the girl says, yes. That is how it is with God. He says to you, 'I want to be united with you. I want to forgive your sins, I want to come and live in your heart and I want to bless you. I want to change your life, and I want to deliver you from your bad habits.' But He won't do it until you say, yes. He is not going to force Himself into a marriage with you if you are not interested. That is why so many people in the world live without God.
Now you see a lot of people in this world living with religion. To live with a religion is not the same as living with God. There is a tremendous difference. There are so many religions including the Christian religion. People usually have a religion because they were born into it. They were born into a particular family and so they go to a particular place of worship. But there is a lot of difference between that and being united to the person of God. Jesus came to bring us into a relationship with God as our Father; into a personal relationship with Him; into a marriage, like I said. He has already said yes when He died on the cross for you, and rose up from the dead. Now He is waiting for you to respond to Him just like the girl had to say yes to the waiting boy. And the moment you say yes, your marriage is over. You are united with Him, forever. But in order to do that (say yes to Him), you have to do what the Bible calls you to - penance.
Penance is a very simple word which just means 'to turn about'. Now you have seen a military parade. You have seen perhaps the leader of the parade saying 'about-turn'. When that command is given, all the soldiers turn 180 degrees to the opposite direction of what they were facing before. That is an about-turn and that is basically what repentance really means. We are born with our backs to God. We are not really interested in God. The Bible says that no one in the world seeks out for God. A lot of people are religious, but to seek for God is something quite different from being religious. We are born seeking our own profit and gain. Even the religious people are seeking their own profit and gain. Think of all the people who go to various places of pilgrimage. What are they going there for? Many will go there to get some benefit for themselves. And there we see that it is really selfishness; they are no different than the non-religious businessman who is also seeking his own interest when he seeks to make money in the marketplace.
So to turn to God means to turn away from seeking just my own way in life; to say, 'Lord, I want to turn around from everything that dishonors you and displeases You. I want to turn around and face You. Till now my back was to You and my face was towards the world, towards sinful pleasures; having my own way, pleasing myself. Now I want to turn around and put my back to all those things and face You, and seek to please You.'
The Bible calls penance in 1 Thessalonians, 1:9 as 'a turning to God from idols.' If we worship anything other than the true God - it could be money, it could be self - that becomes like an idol in our life and that turns me away from God. That thing becomes my God, that thing is uppermost in my mind. Penance is to turn away from all those things and turn to the one true God. A pretty girl whom you love could be your idol; who could be like God in your life to occupy so much time. It could be money, your job, your house, your car; it could be anything. Unless we are willing to turn from the worship of these things and say, 'God, Creator of the Heavens and my Creator, I want You to have the first place in my life' (that is penance, to turn around and make God central in our life), we cannot have a relationship with God.
Now, very often, we find it easy for us to deceive ourselves. We can think that, because we have said these words, we have shown penance. But the Bible also says that we must bring forth fruits that are in keeping with our penance. How do we prove that we have really turned from our old way of life? One way would be, if you have stolen money from someone in the past, or if you have cheated the government of taxes, then you will do penance, you will show fruit worthy of penance, you will return it. You are going to go to that person and say, 'I am sorry, I stole some money from you. Perhaps you didn't know about it. Here is the money with interest that I am returning to you.' If you have cheated the government of taxes, it would mean returning that money to the government. If you have traveled in the subway without buying the ticket, it would mean repaying that money to the subway authorities. Then, it would prove that you are serious about your penance. Otherwise they would be mere words.
Now a lot of people turn to God with mere words. There is a verse in the Bible where God says, these people turn to me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me and their worship is a mere tradition. That is how it is with most religious people in the world; their religion is one which never causes them any inconvenience. Do you know how inconvenient it is to go back and return money which you have taken wrongfully from somebody? It is humiliating, but that is the proof that you really want to give up that way of life. It also means that if you have lost your temper at somebody, and shouted at somebody, or called somebody by a bad name, you should go to that person and say, 'I am sorry for what I did. That was my mistake, please forgive me.' See, those are just a few words. It takes only fifteen seconds for you to say it to somebody. But you will discover it is so difficult for you to do it.
Why is it so difficult for you to say those ten or fifteen words to somebody? - Because of pride, we are so proud. That is the reason why many people cannot turn to God. Christ has died for our sins, but we have to turn towards Him in order to receive that forgiveness. We have to turn away from that sin in our life that we have chosen. And we have to say, 'Lord, I want to receive what you give.' To say that, I have to do penance - there should be a turnabout. Otherwise, if I just say with my words to God that I am sorry and I am not willing to set right with man the things I have done wrong to man; it would only mean that I am not really serious about turning from my sin. It would mean that I want to get forgiveness from God cheaply. Do you know that forgiveness is not cheap? God had to send His son Jesus Christ to earth to die? And he had to go through all that suffering to purchase our forgiveness. If you want it cheaply, if you don't even want to acknowledge your sin before God and show forth fruit worthy of penance, then you cannot get that forgiveness.
So, penance means that I acknowledge the guilt of worshiping things other than God. I need to come to God and say, 'Lord, You alone are worthy to be worshiped. You, whom I cannot see with my eyes - the Invisible Creator of this universe - You are the One worthy to be worshiped. I am sorry that I have spent my life worshiping created things. I want to turn to You.' Penance doesn't mean that you have to give up your job and become a hermit or give up your family or any such thing.
It is not giving up earthly things as much as giving up an attachment to earthly things.
There is a lot of difference. God may still allow you to have your home, your job, your family, but don't be attached to them, don't make them your god. In fact, making them your god destroys you. It is not a sin to use the comforts that modern civilization provides us, but it is a sin to love those comforts more than we love God.
See, God has created our bodies in such a way that we can experience the pleasure of food, sleep, and many other things like that. There is nothing wrong in experiencing these pleasures. But if we make these things more important than God, then those things have become idols in our lives. One more thing: if we don't forgive others, then Jesus said that our Heavenly Father will also not forgive us. So that is another thing we need to do. If we are really have a heart of penance, we will forgive every single person who has harmed us, just like God, our Heavenly Father, has forgiven us.
1 Catholic encyclopedia. You can view this quote online at https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/penance. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed at Catholic answers.com are their own and do not necessarily reflect the teaching of the true Catholic Church.