“Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in!”
— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The aim of spirituality is to make man fully conscious of his true innocence. This journey from ignorance to enlightenment begins with the realisation that one is unconscious. Accepting one’s ignorance is first rung on the ladder in the quest for truth.
Among the early lessons in this quest is the realisation of one’s follies and admission of wrongdoing. It nudges man to resolve to make amends for his sins. The second step, regret, can be the psychological catalyst for change towards returning to one’s better self or to improve one’s prior self. Regret helps us focus on both the past and the future, being honest of what was so that one can become who one really can be. A sincere apology is a way to the truth.
Spiritual doctors emphasise that an appropriate amount of guilt for our erroneous actions can help put us back on the righteous path. Proclamations of remorse serve not only to assuage the offended party but are also offered in the hope that the life of the penitent can return to normality as quickly as possible.
In religious terms, repentance is a prerequisite for divine forgiveness and mercy. For Jews and Muslims, the focus is on God’s desire for us to repent before pardoning us unconditionally. In repentance, we must experience genuine remorse for the wrongdoing and then convert our penitential energy into positive acts.
The Creator has placed a unique volitional quality in man’s psyche — and that is what is called “repentance”. This special feature is particularly prominent in people who hold a firm belief in God and his scriptures. The Quran extols the repentant in these words: “God will change their evil deeds into good deeds.”
The Greek term for repentance in the New Testament is metanoia, or “a change of heart”. It is not equivalent to mere remorse, which must precede it. Repentance is central to Judaism too. Jews even dedicate the 10 days between the Jewish New Year and the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — to repentance.
True repentance should not be a mere momentary spasm of remorse and a matter of expediency, but it must influence and leave its mark in terms of character, action and life. Mourning for mistakes does not bring transformation; it merely gives consolation. True repentance leads to a life change which is based upon a real transformation. True repentance is evidenced not only by a change of heart, but by a change of action. When a person is tempted to do the wrong thing and then, confronted by the same situation again, does the right thing, he or she is said to have truly repented.
As the decades roll by, heaps of corpses continue to tower, ever higher, up to the skies, in the aftermath of armed conflicts and violence. We know that not many of those in high office who made these things happen shed a tear over their actions. One can only deduce that such acts of repentance are hard to perform.
There was a time in public life when atonement was seen as a form of strength — a way not only to own up to one’s missteps, but to reform oneself. With repentance getting confused with humiliation, remorselessness has become an act of resistance and defiance a point of pride.