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Problem with Repentance

By Paul So ~

When I was seventeen years old I took my faith very seriously; I took my faith so seriously that I could pray over an hour if I felt compelled to do so. But why did I feel compelled to pray over an hour? As a Christian at the age of seventeen, the most important phase is to be forgiven, but forgiveness is only possible through confession and repentance. I learned this from reading a few passages from the bible and from other Christian devotional books. However, while I understood what it means to confess, I didn’t exactly know what it means to repent. When I read some of the devotionals as well as some of the passages of the bible, and begun to reflect on the meaning of repentance, it dawned upon me that repentance done by a single human being is impossible.

The reasoning behind this thinking was that a sinner cannot repent unless he realizes the benevolent nature of God through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When I say the sinner cannot repent, I really mean he cannot repent on his own, rather it has to be through God who does it for think. This reasoning was supported by biblical passages in Romans 2:4:
“Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance”. 

The idea that repentance isn’t something that sinners do, but something that God grants to sinners was also found in Acts 5:31 and Acts 11:18. In other passages, which I couldn’t find, it also says that the holy spirit inspires repentance among sinners.

It dawned upon me that I cannot ask for forgiveness yet, but rather I have to ask for repentance. So for many months this is what I did. However there were several disturbing problems with this theological notion of atonement. First, how do I know that I have not committed a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? After all, the blasphemy against the holy spirit was not well-defined, and there are couple of different interpretations of it. In Mathew 12:31, it talks about the blasphemy of the holy spirit as the only sin that cannot be forgiven. So if this is what I did, then I cannot receive repentance at all. I thought I was in deep trouble. It leads me to the most painful and excruciating existential and spiritual anxiety that was more disturbing that mere physical pain. I seriously was contemplating on committing suicide on several occasions. I got out of this pathological phase by praying more and by choosing one of the more “safer” interpretations of the blasphemy against the holy spirit as a persistent sin against God, so it’s no longer just on act that causes this blasphemy, but a persistent and deliberate behavior. After this insight I got out of it but there were other problems that were not resolved.

Second, how do I even know whether I am in the state of repentance? Even if I did ask for it many times, how do I know that I actually received it? What are the signs? None of this made any sense to me. Are deep spiritual emotions the sign of repentance? Or is it a mere knowledge of the fact that I am repentant? Is it through a dream, or through some other ambiguous signs? I had many questions that went through my head that related to this question: How do I know? How do I know that I am not merely deceiving myself to believe that I am being repentant when I am truly not? I tried to “systematize” my own theology of atonement by trying to connect the dots from passages to passages, and I assumed that different narratives contain symbolic meaning of repentance, but I couldn’t find them, and I always felt that there were discrepancies or disconnectedness among them. I tried to ask other Christians, including my father, and all they said was to have faith that I am going to or I have receive repentance. At first this was convincing, but eventually it did not help. To have faith that I am repentant merely amounts to believe that I am repentant because I believe that I am repentant: this is obviously circular and unhelpful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I knew that faith is just not going to give me knowledge, but only let me make an assumption. Even if I did have faith that I am repentant, how do I know that my faith is not displaced on a wrong assumption? How do I know that the devil is deceiving me into believing that I have genuine faith in my repentance? How do I know that I am not just deceiving myself into believing that I received repentance? I became like a theological version of Descartes who doubted everything, and when I doubt but received no answers to my troubling questions, it eventually lead me to depression, cynicism, bitterness, and loneliness.

Third, one of the most subtle problem I had with repentance was this: I have to be repentant by asking for repentance; this simply did not make any sense. Immanuel Kant, a famous German Philosopher of the 18th century, was raised a Lutheran Pietist by a group of evangelical pietists who believed that to be repentant is to ask for repentance. Kant knew that there was something wrong with this line of thinking:
“The separation of good from evil is brought about by supernatural operation, i.e. contrition and crushing of the heart in a repentance, which borders on despair. Only divine spirit can bring us to a sufficient state of repentance. We must pray for it- being contrite that we are not contrite enough”
When I read this passage from the biography of Kant, it became clear to me that “being contrite that we are not contrite enough” was incoherent and self-contradictory. For Kant however, it was something more. The biographer said “This was repugnant to him. He considered it hypocritical because the grieving and contrition were not ultimately the responsibility of the one to be converted”….”On this hypothesis, we could never know whether we really were converted, because this would presuppose knowledge of an unknowable supernatural force” Kant’s problem with repentance was very similar to my own, and I no longer felt alone in my confusion with repentance: it was really confusing because it was incoherent and we simply cannot know if we really were repentant. Kant also made another striking point that if we cannot be repentant apart from God, why should we be held culpable or blameworthy? If we cannot repent without God, why would God punish us for something which we cannot do?

Even if I did have faith..., how do I know that my faith is not displaced on a wrong assumption? I guess the fourth problem is that I didn’t feel like I received any answers in my prayers. I felt so depressed a frustrated with the notion of repentance that my prayer felt futile. The first three problems combined made my “spiritual journey” seem futile all together. What it really amounted to was that there was not theology of atonement, because there were theologies of atonement. In other words, there were several ways to interpret atonement because the notion of atonement was vague, and the only clues are the fragments of biblical passages that mentions it. I talked with this to some of the most friendliest theology students, and they admitted to me that the atonement is far from being the most clear doctrine in Christianity. They still had a clear belief about it, but they admitted that different Christians have different understanding of it.

The problem of repentance, however, only lead me to reject Christianity but it didn’t lead me to reject the existence of God; I became a deist afterwards. In a couple years later I was about to reconsider Christianity until I began to read parts of the bible that exposes some of the atrocities that God endorsed. I eventually rejected the belief in the existence of God when I begin to examine the arguments for the existence of God and the nature of God. You can read more about it in my other article “Discordance”, but the gist of it is that when I studied philosophy and examined Christianity more closely, I begin to see more incoherency to the point that I no longer believe in any of the fundamental beliefs that most protestant fundamentalist would hold close to their hearts.

Thus, the problem of repentance ironically lead me to the philosophical life in which there was a liberating doubt that extricated me from the incoherency and dogmatism of superstition. Whereas philosophy gave me the liberty to ask questions, to formulate beliefs based on any reasonable justification, and to re-examine or modify my beliefs in accordance to new insight an evidence, I don’t think Christianity gave me the same privilege.

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