All too often, when we sin and need to go to confession, we think of the damage we have done to ourselves or maybe to others. A lot of us have developed the mindset of “oh I’m in mortal sin, I need to go to confession and then I’ll be fine.” Maybe they are confessing because they want to receive communion at the next mass, and they are wise enough to know that receiving in mortal sin is gravely dangerous to one’s spiritual and even physical life. People treat confession as the Sacrament of Being Able to Receive Communion on Sunday. But when we treat confession in that manner, is there any real contrition?
The next set of people are those who are ashamed and sorry for their sins because their sin injures there spiritual pride. “I sinned! I can’t believe I did that! I need to try harder next time. I’m sorry God for sinning! Mea Culpa!” This statement is what these people will utter. But what they really mean is “I’m disgusted by this sin. I don’t want to sin anymore because of how ugly it is.” This can merit imperfect contrition, however it is still self-centered.
Next are those who confess their sins because they don’t want to go to hell. For instance, it could be someone who had it dawn on them that if they die at that moment, they are going to hell. Because of this, they pledge to sin no more and to avoid the occasions of sin, for fear of God’s punishment. This is also imperfect contrition. At the root of all of these is a selfish motive. “I need to do this so I can better myself.” That mindset sums all of these up. Even the person confessing out of fear of hell falls into this category.
Lastly, there is perfect contrition. Perfect contrition is sorrow for sin arising from perfect love. In perfect contrition, the sinner detests sin more than any other evil, because it offends God, who is supremely good and deserving of all human love. Its motive is founded on God’s own goodness and not merely his goodness to the sinner or to humanity. This motive, and not the intensity of the act, less still the feelings experienced, is what essentially constitutes perfect sorrow.
But how does this relate to confession or sin in general? And why should we strive for perfect contrition? By committing a mortal sin, we essentially told God “get lost, I don’t need you.”
Let that sink in for a moment. God, who came down from heaven, humiliated himself to the point of being made something that was originally his own creation, was beaten in the most cruel way and died so we could be freed from sin. He who rose from the dead and gave us the Church that we might not have to suffer eternal torment. We say “nah, don’t need him. This sinning stuff feels good.”
Think about this. You have a friend all through high school. Your friend has always been there for you, keeping you out of trouble, and then you decide that he is hurting your popularity so you ditch him even though you know it’s wrong. You later feel the guilt of betraying your friend and are moved to reconciliation with him. That is sort of like what perfect contrition is. You aren’t doing it because you need him to get something else you want but because you are legitimately regret hurting the person that’s always been there.
Now turn the tables. You are the friend that got abandoned now. After all you have done for them, they leave because you weren’t good enough for them. Imagine the pain, anger, and sadness you would feel. Is God any different. After all, we were created in His likeness and image, and God clearly has his moments of anger and sadness in the scriptures.
This is a way of explaining it, but I can assure you that it runs much deeper than that. The remorse stemming from the fact that we hurt God and our relationship with Him is where perfect contrition lies. It is not self centered. When we go to confession, we confess to a priest who stands in as the representative of God and the Church. You confess to him your sins and beg for forgiveness because by your sins you have harmed both God and the Church.
Therefore, next time you approach this great Sacrament of forgiveness, remember why you are confessing. You aren’t confessing to improve yourself, but to express to God and the Church how we have hurt them and that we are sorry for hurting Him (which is in the act of contrition that we pray).