Confusion on this issue is a fairly common problem. Here is a typical question from modern parishioners:
How can we obtain repentance? Where can we get it from? How should we implore the Lord? I have any number of visions of sinfulness and I have regret and despondency, but no repentance, and that’s it. There is no turning over of my mind. And I have been imploring for so many years, seemingly sincerely. Who can tell me why it is this way; what depends on me—what do I need to do to change this?
For example, someone gets in a fight with his co-workers—and not just any person, but someone who tries to analyze his behavior in terms of the good and evil, and tries to make a change for the better.
Self-criticism immediately heaps a mountain of sad thoughts upon him: about his bad character, about similar situations from the past, about his numerous attempts to correct himself, and mainly—about their futility and ineffectiveness.
Everything ends, as a rule, with the usual despair, when a man, sad about his imperfection, throws up his hands, figuratively speaking, in regards to the salvation of his soul, and plants himself in front of the screen and goes into the world of entertainment. Or he drinks… and also goes into the world of entertainment; or into work, or into household chores, into hobbies, into melancholy—there are more than enough possibilities.
Repentance, however, will first prompt a course of action.
“What are you going to do?” it asks the man again. “Aren’t you asking this question rhetorically? No? You really want to do something? What could be simpler! You have to make amends for the consequences of the trouble you’ve caused others; to ask forgiveness, to help others, to show some care for your co-workers…”
“It won’t work,” introspection declares. “It’ll all be unnatural, ridiculous… They won’t understand.”
“What do ‘it won’t work’ and ‘they won’t understand’ mean?” asks repentance. “Are you offended? Did it hurt? Now try to mitigate the consequences at least a little.”
“I’ll bow to them, fawn, and they’ll be arguing behind my back that I’m doing it forcibly,” self-criticism needles you.
“Well, that’s true,” repentance meekly reminds. “It is forced. It doesn’t matter what they mean by this word—what’s important is what you want. You want to fix something, don’t you?”
“I do,” self-criticism sulks. “I don’t want to offend anybody, I want everyone to be happy, I want everyone to always be warm and joyful with me… That’s what I really want, but it doesn’t work out for me!”
“Now that’s just too much,” repentance marvels. “’Everyone and always!’ Not even the Lord Himself can please everyone. However, with these specific people and this specific case, can’t you brighten their lives? Just because you owe them now. And anyways, there’s a good chance that they’ll still feel your good disposition—if such is engendered within you, of course.”
“But not my co-workers!” self-criticism immediately erupts. “They’re just… Just! Arrogant. Undisciplined. Narrow-minded. Vulgar… They offend me, slander me, mock me, ignore me… They’re even more indebted to me! More!!!”
And here it is, the moment of truth: It turns out that we didn’t terribly want to see our own fault in this argument. We wanted to not have a fight, to have the comfortable feeling of our rightness, but to see our own wrongness… We didn’t want that.
The exact same thing happens in familial relations that have reached a dead end: You hear someone biting and condemning himself: Something is wrong with him; he’s a bad spouse, a poor family man, an unworthy Christian… But in every specific argument, he’s correct! Or in fact—he’s right, and that’s it! Or because the other spouse got fed up and was forced into being wrong… and in general he’s right!
Usually, when someone has just come to faith, he is given an experience of what a paradoxical sense of relief repentance can give. When we admit that we are unworthy of something, we humble ourselves, and we learn from personal experience that the yoke of the Lord is easy and His burden is light.
And in fact, if you are right, but there is utter darkness in your soul; then where is the way out? There is none. No wonder they say that hell is a place where everyone is right. But when you see where you’re wrong, how wrong, and how often you’re wrong—everything falls into place; everything becomes clear. The ways out appear, and there are plenty of them.
The problem is that we usually lose our initial gifts of grace frighteningly soon. Having received an experience for free, of repentance for example, we quickly begin to consider it something of our own, we’re not afraid to lose it, we violate the laws of preservation (usually through condemnation), and, of course, we lose it. And from then on we have to work hard to get back at least some crumbs of our former richness.
Well, alright: a man realizes that “as the Prodigal I have wasted my life (Sessional Hymn from the Sunday of the Prodigal Son), is ashamed and wants to get back what was lost. Which way should he go?
There are the Patristic concepts of lowliness of mind (smirennomudrie) and love of wisdom (lyubomudrie). They mean the behavior of a person who has not yet acquired the virtues of humility and love, but who is consciously trying to do as they prescribe. Acquiring repentance requires the same: You must compel yourself to behave in a manner consistent with someone who is repenting.
To begin with, we have to try to understand where exactly our fault is for what has happened. If this does not happen, then behind our apologetic, “Well, forgive me, forgive me… I’m to blame for everything,” our interlocutor rightly notes that we are not admitting any guilt, but we simply consider him a nut with whom it’s better not to argue; and he’s offended even more.
Therefore, in any conflict, we have to try to lift our minds to God with concern for what has happened. Don’t simmer in your emotions, don’t boil and bubble over with resentment, but immediately kneel before God with concern and a request: “Lord, what have I done wrong here? Or what’s wrong with me in general? Why is there such a reaction to me?” This stage clarifies whether we really want to see our part of the wrong in the situation that has unfolded.
It's no surprise that we don’t want to see it—it obliges us to do a lot, after all. Behind the vision of his wrong, the penitent comes to realize that he must be willing to suffer for it. And with deep repentance comes not only the willingness, but also the desire to suffer. Do we remember how the thief on the cross expressed his repentance? In a very specific action: He considered that he deserved the death penalty. The prodigal son considered himself unworthy of begin called a son. Zacchaeus distributed his property…
We go to confession and we say, “I have sinned,” but then, even before we leave the church, we’re arranging a showdown. We ourselves say we are sinners; we ourselves acknowledge that we have no repentance … but we demand attention and recognition for ourselves as if we’re better than everyone else. Not only are we not ready to endure unpleasantness, we directly organize a fierce struggle for “pleasure.” Very strange behavior: There is neither logic nor common sense in it.
And it happens that only when a state of impenitence leads us to the gates of hell do we appeal to God with a sincere desire to see our wrong. And sometimes it happens that we don’t call out even then.
Self-criticism posits unattainable goals—here and now—and then torments us with sadness. Note this: We are still offered grief, only this grief brings no good fruit at all.
Repentance is productive; it teaches action that brings good fruits. In this specific case, it will tell us what to ask forgiveness for, cautioning us what tone to use to do so. Then it will leave a good, deep mark on your memory, that you’re a man who’s unrestrained in words and emotions; remember how often you were wrong, how often you offended someone…
And in another situation, having this mark before your eyes, you not only won’t argue with your equals, but you will also forgive the younger an unkind escapade and an evil word.
For there is not a just man upon earth, said King Solomon, that doeth good, and sinneth not. Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others (Eccl. 7:20-22).
Probably the whole secret of this act is that when done with self-compulsion, it leaves marks not only on our memory, but on our hearts. The labors of acquiring repentance breaks the heart—and God does not despise a broken heart.