How to Ask for Forgiveness

This is one of the most important questions that a person can ever ask himself. If someone is asking this question, he is probably far better off than the majority of people who do not even think that they need forgiveness. Our society has become so insensitive to sin that so many people do not even think they need a Savior. But man in the depths of his heart knows very well his unrighteousness,[1] and his thirst for righteousness that can only be satisfied by Christ’s forgiveness and sanctifying power. Our sins truly damage, and when mortal, destroy our relationship with God, to deny this would be the heresy of the Fundamental Option Theory condemned in Veritatis Splendor (65-70). Isaiah 59:2 says explicitly:

but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hid his face from you
so that he does not hear.

Sin makes us God’s enemies, but we know that God rescues us in His love and compassion from our miserable state, in fact: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son […]” (Romans 5:10). Asking for forgiveness to God and repenting of our sins is the beginning of the interior conversion of a soul

 CCC 1430: Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.

CCC 1431: Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)

There is a catchy phrase that I came up with hearing a talk about prayer. It’s “repent like a pirate, ARR…!”. Those three letters stand for the commonly known sound that all pirates consistently make to look cool, but also for three very important phases of the process of repentance: Acknowledge, Regret, Resolve. Acknowledge sin, Regret it out of love for Christ, Resolve to never do it again. We must remember that through the whole “process” of repentance, it’s God’s grace working in us.

Acknowledge: let’s look at the first part of this wonderful process. One cannot solve a problem unless he recognizes it. Evil is a vortex. It’s like swimming in quicksand. The more you do it, the deeper you go, and the more you are trapped in it. It’s like eating ice cream when you are sad, the more you do it, the more you can’t stop. Sin is an offense, an offense against God (CCC 1850), against reason, against one’s nature. Not an offense meaning that the almighty God is “offended”, like we are when we are insulted, but in the sense of an attack, an aggression, an offense against God. Sin is like a crime, God hates it[2] out of love for you, and mortal sin deserves as a punishment eternity in hell, this is how grave it is, because it is done against a perfect, innocent, all loving, all good, God. The first step is to recognize this, like King David wonderfully did after he committed adultery and murder:

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
(Psalm 51: 3-4)

We can never change and grow in the love of God if we don’t have the courage to face our mistakes, and humbly admit them. This phase is when we stop frantically swimming in the quicksand, we stop panting while we are going deeper into the suffocating darkness. It’s putting the ice cream spoon down. We can’t live in denial, we all have this terminal cancer called sin, and we are headed towards an eternal grave of punishment, the only thing we can do is hope in a Savior, and this is exactly what God has provided for us in His love!

In my personal experience, when I sin I tend to suffocate my conscience, and silence it, and repress it and act as if nothing happened. It is when I finally answer God’s grace, by going alone in a room, with a pen and a sheet of paper, writing down my sins and admitting to Him that I am guilty of them, that My soul starts taking its first breath of Grace after having been drowning for so long in denial.

There are two apparently similar but opposite reactions after one has admitted his sins: desperation and repentance. We see these two reactions, one in Judas, and the other in Peter. Desperation is when a person out of shame for his sin closes his heart to God, thinking that God will never forgive him for what he did, it’s admitting the sin without having the humility of running back home like the prodigal son did, and instead deciding to run away in the opposite direction far from home. It’s spiritual suicide. Judas knew he betrayed Jesus, and instead of getting on his knees begging for forgiveness (that, if sincere, he surely would have found) he decided to kill himself. Peter on the other hand, when he faced the fact that he had denied Jesus three times, he started pouring tears of repentance, and holy sorrow, in conversion, hope, love, regret. The main and most fundamental difference between desperation and repentance is the most neglected of the theological virtues, Hope. In desperation there is the absence of hope, there is just a desert of self-loathing and pride. In repentance, there is total surrender to God, desire for His mercy, humility, poverty, sorrow out of love, and hope, hope for forgiveness and change.

Regret:  Once one has acknowledged his sin, it is fundamental to regret having done it. What good would it be if one admits his action to boast of it? None! The regret comes from recognizing and hating the evilness of that offense against the most innocent, loving, just, mighty, God. This sorrow of the heart demonstrates the love that one has for God. At times this regret, like in the case of St. Peter, comes in the form of tears, but it doesn’t always have to. St Ambrose, said wonderfully that tears of repentance are like a second baptism (CCC 1429 note), they have a cleansing and purifying effect. There is also the sorrow for having gone against our own dignity with our sin, knowing that we were made in the image of God, made for love and greatness, yet we chose rebellion and darkness, attacking God, and wounding ourselves. There is also regret for having missed on the opposite virtue of our sin; by lust, we missed out on the virtue of chastity, by pride we forsook humility, and so on (a great way to defeat sin, is not only avoiding evil, but actively seeking its opposite good). We must remember that this is not an emotional “thing” going on but it is a choice of the will. It is beautiful when also the emotions are in the process and we feel sorry, but it’s not about feeling sorry, but being sorry. It is a choice of the will to regret out of love for God, knowing that we also went against our dignity and failed to love virtue. In this process, we must remember that while we are running back home towards the Father, God is also running towards us, like described in the parable of the prodigal son. We must not forget that in the process of repentance, it is God that took the first step toward us, and keeps empowering us to run back towards Him with His grace.

Resolve: After one has acknowledged his sins, regretted them out of love for God, now he has to resolve to live free of those chains that were keeping him far away from his Heavenly Father. Here there is the firm resolution to go to confession, as God and His Church teach, to be freed from our heavy chains. The embrace of love that we receive from Jesus when we repent sincerely, must lead us to become mighty warriors, determined to wrestle to the ground with God’s grace every future temptation. We must fear to sin, and offending again the One we should love the most. We must resolve to be set apart for God, despising the world and its deceiving allurements as Scripture teaches:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15)

To be holy means to be set apart, we must thirst for righteousness and know that we will find it only in Christ. Like Christ went into the temple to drive out the impostorous merchants, we must let Him do the same in our souls. We must die to self in order to be exalted in Christ. We are called to remain faithful to our baptism, and therefore this resolution to not sin anymore is a declaration of war[3] towards the powers of hell that want your soul.

We must pick up the armor of the holy spirit[4] and the sword of love, to conquer in Christ all the parts of us that are not yet submitted in love to Him, and then to conquer every soul that has yet not found the Way, the Truth and the Life.[5] This is exactly what we read in Psalm 51, the best example of repentance, where King David, after having acknowledged and regretted his sin, he resolves to never do them again, and to become holy, and to teach sinners the ways of God. This step is crucial, he brings others in his transformation:

Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee. (Psalm 51:13)

It is so important to remember that we are not fighting this battle alone, but the very fact that we are repenting, and resolving to love Christ, is already the might work of grace within us. We couldn’t desire God, without God first desiring us!

We must also resolve to do penance, just as the Ninevites did after Jonah’s preaching. Jesus himself recognized their repentance, which included penance with sackcloth:

“The men of Nin′eveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41)

Emotion: this issue always comes up, so many people say, “I don’t feel sorry, yet I want to be”. Repenting is not about feeling sorry, it’s an act of love, and love is within the will, it’s not an emotion. Ask every healthy married couple, real love is in the will, also when you do not feel like loving, you do. The fact that we desire to repent is already repentance! We don’t have to have tears, even though emotions help the will repent more sincerely at times. Some say that they don’t feel God in repentance, again, it’s not about feeling, it’s about knowing that God is already working in us if we are repenting. We are called to love, to love God wonderfully without any limit, and our love is purified when at times we do not have the emotions we would like to have. A simple practical way to repent is to repeat, meaning it truly with the will, the act of contrition (click here)

Confession: many will ask, “why then do I need confession?”, the answer is simple, because in repenting, the desire of confession is included, and Jesus (God), the one you are asking for forgiveness to, tells you to do so, in scripture,[6] and through His Church (CCC 1440).

There are two types of contrition (let’s use it interchangeably with repentance), perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition is when we repent out of love for God, imperfect contrition is when we repent out of fear from hell. Only if your contrition is perfect your mortal sins are forgiven, but you can’t know if your contrition was truly perfect therefore you must seek sacramental confession, which certifies that your sins are forgiven, because even if you had imperfect contrition your sins are forgiven. If you are about to die without the possibility of calling a priest for confession and have perfect contrition, all your sins are forgiven, but perfect contrition still entails the desire for confession.

Confession is like the prodigal son entering the house of his father, yes in repenting he was running back home, but confession is the very entering into the home. It not only restores your communion with God that was broken, but also the one with His bride, the Church!

So if you are truly repentant, you will desire to be certain of God’s forgiveness and of the restoration of that relationship, you will desire to have your relation with the Church restored too, and you will desire to follow what Jesus and the Church teach about confession.

In confession one must confess all his mortal sins in kind and number to the best of his ability. An examination of conscience (this can help: click here) has to be done before going to confession. Confessing one’s sins is like unveiling a wound, it might hurt, but it must be to receive God’s grace, just like you uncover a wound to pour disinfectant on it.

Ed Da Pra


[1] Romans 3: 10-12

[2] Psalm 119:104

[3] Matthew 10:34

[4] Ephesians 6:10-20

[5] John 14:6

[6] John 20:23

One Comment Add yours

  1. Emiliano says:

    Awesome! I appreciated very much your Scripture and Catechism based approach, something often missing in Italy when talking about this kind of subjects. Do you have any references to go deeper into the matter of perfect and imperfect contrition?

    God bless!


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