Just Say an Act of Contrition

I grew up under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. I can remember, as a youthful sinner, being in the confessional and saying a prayer aptly named the “Act of Contrition.” Being in that box all alone with a priest on the other side of the thinly veiled, sliding window was intimidating enough. Reciting that prayer, which I had meticulously memorized, seemed to add to the aura of godliness on the other side of the wall. Everything was magnified in that humbling situation, of course, because I was guilty as sin. (I suppose that’s where that expression originated.)

Asking for forgiveness from God is one thing. Having to ask for it from a living, breathing, human being is quite another. It’s not something most of us jump at the chance to do.

“I hadn’t seen a need for an apology.”

Keeping that in mind, I found it to be humbling and astonishing at the same time when (on three separate occasions over the past year) different individuals came to me to ask for my forgiveness. I suppose this actually happened to me more than three times during this period. However, those three particular incidents were extremely memorable, because (in each of those situations) I hadn’t seen a need for an apology. None of those folks had offended me in any way (at least not in a way that I had recognized). Still, they each felt the need to come to me face-to-face and ask for forgiveness.

Of course, I forgave each of them and assured them there was no need for an apology. But the result of their actions caused me to take pause and reflect on our reticence (and occasionally, our inability) to humble ourselves enough to approach others with a penitent attitude.

A Contrite Heart

What I immediately noticed was that my respect for each of these individuals grew dramatically. It’s not that I disrespected them before the fact, but my level of admiration for them rose significantly. It seems to me it takes a real man (or woman) just to admit one’s wrongs. But to then approach the wronged individual with a contrite heart would take real humility. It’s a hard thing to do and a hard lesson to learn. That kind of character cannot be found in just anyone.

The other side to that type of occurrence happens when people forgive someone before it’s requested. In Scripture, we see Messiah doing just that. You may remember the passage that describes the scene where a paralytic was lowered through someone’s roof to bypass the crowds around Jesus (Luke 5:17-26). As far as we can tell, the paralyzed man never asked for forgiveness. Despite that, Jesus forgave his sins anyway. The reason given for the Savior’s forgiveness had nothing to do with the man at all. Jesus forgave him when “he saw their faith”—they being the paralytic’s friends.

All in all, forgiveness seems to be a rather complicated subject. We should probably give it a little more consideration in our daily lives. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

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