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“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt

The difference between shame-based repentance and guilt-based repentance is the former is self-centered while the latter is God-based. Basing repentance on shame becomes self-centered. It focuses on our mistake(s), only, since shame says, “I am bad.” When repentance is shame-based, we may tell ourselves things such as, “I shouldn’t have done that,” “I let down God again,” or “I am not worthy of God’s love and mercy.” What follows then is that confession becomes a means only to quiet my conscience and shame, becoming more self-serving. I only “repent” because it makes me feel better about myself; however, when we fall into sin again, we’ll continue to fall into the same self-absorption.

Guilt is God-based in that it acknowledges our mistake but, at the same time, turns God-ward. In his book Churchianity vs. Christianity, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says the following. “We are imperfect in two different ways: we may be imperfect while we strive God-wards, or we may be imperfect when we turn away from God. It is not a matter of success; it is a matter of direction. Saint Ephraim of Syria says that the Church is not a body of saints; it is a crowd of repentant sinners. And by repentant, we do not mean wailing sinners, but people who have turned God-wards and move God-wards, who may fall but will stand.” Unlike shame-based repentance, our guilt-based repentance says, “yes, I sinned, but you God are the good, the long-suffering, the abundant in mercy. You are great in compassion, who has mercy on me and wishes for me to live.” When you have an abundance of something, it means you have an excess and overflow to give so much to others. That’s God’s mercy.

St. John Climacus, in his book On the Ladder of Divine Ascent, couldn’t state it any better, saying, “repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.” Bishop Kallistos Ware comments on this quote in The Inner Kingdom, “it [repentance] is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my shortcomings, but upward at God’s love, not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”

Yes, God accepts our repentance no matter how imperfect it is, but having an enlightened understanding of repentance only helps us spiritually and psychologically. May we learn to take off the old man and put on the new and superior one through our repentance.