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Repentance: To Accuse and Not Excuse

September 11, 2012

If we are to make progress coping with our thoughts, we must make progress in repentance. And if we are to make progress in repentance, it is critical that we learn to accuse ourselves of our sins, rather than excuse them or deny them. In my book, I refer to the writings of Saint Augustine and Tertullian who make the contrast between “the word ac-cusare that implies movement toward accusation and the word ex-cusare that means movement away from accusation.”  Unfortunately, even in confession, it is not uncommon for people to weave a series of excuses or denials, so that the person will appear to be virtuous even in his sin! This is why simplicity is also such a fundamental virtue for every Christian. The Lord Christ spoke of simplicity when he said,  “when thine eye is simple (the KJV translates the word ἁπλοῦς as singular), thy whole body also is full of light.” There is one way to be simple and that is to humbly, responsibly, confess our sins and our wrongs with awareness of the harm we have caused ourselves and others. There are, however, many ways to make excuses, for like the passions, excuses are “paths that are always crooked and perverse.”

Dr. K. Pope (2007) in his article “Ethics, Critical Thinking, & Language: Using Words to Deceive” relates eight bogus apologies, that is, eight language patterns that transform what should be contrite self-accusation to unashamed self-exoneration. It might be helpful to consider these patterns, so that we can avoid them when we try to settle our own accounts. For example, today, not only is the sin of judging one’s brother rampant, but many spend much time in the even more serious sin of judging the clergy (ἱεροκατηγορία).  Civil law in the United States provides protection against charges of libel and slander for those who publicly condemn the actions of others, if those actions are known to be true.  However, the same protection is not provided in the realm of the spiritual life.  We are strictly prohibited from judging or condemning anyone, regardless of the veracity of the claims against them.   A Christian needs to struggle not to condemn anyone, especially those he should reverence, in order to grow in repentance and holiness. Saint Dorotheos of Gaza teaches that “nothing angers God so much or strips man so bare [of divine grace] or leads to his to his being abandoned, as calumniating, condemning or despising his neighbor” (SC 92.270). The Christian who repents would say, “I condemned the bishops. In my pride, I took the place of God. I am responsible for my actions. I know that judging my fellow servant is wrong. I know that doing so can lead others to sin. I am sorry and I want to learn to forgive and to love.”  How can the eight language patterns, enumerated by Pope, be misused to sap confession of its saving power? Here are the patterns with an example:

1. Substitute the general for the specific so that the individual and act disappear:

Christians know that it is wrong to judge others. And those who do that fall into a sin.”

2. Use a conditional frame for consequences to shift focus from the act to the effects (this is common!):

If my words harmed or perhaps offended anyone, and people get offended very easily, I am sorry.”

3. Use denied-motivation as misdirection (this is also common!):

“I can honestly say that regardless of what I may have said about others, I never intended for anyone to be hurt.

4. Use the abstract language of technicalities:

I know that the passions are complex and interrelated. Sometimes one passion might feed another. And philautia might be the reason why I am not always so careful about my speech as I should be given that I am in a stage of purification.”

5. Use of passive voice:

Certain things have been said by us that can be construed as being critical. We are going to remedy that situation by taking steps that will insure greater care over speech.”

6. Make unimportant by contrasting with what did not occur (common):

In our day, terrible deeds are committed by many people. And sometimes, unthinking words can so thoroughly ruin someone’s reputation that they could even drive a person to suicide. In my knowledge, what ever I have said about others has never had such drastic effects on them. And in contrast with lies and intentionally hurtful words, my own negative opinions about certain people were not without basis, something that I am quite proud of.

7. Replace intentional unethical behavior with the language of accidents, misfortune, and mistakes (common):

“I am only human, and sometimes I just get carried away with what I say or I even let others lead me astray. Unfortunately, yesterday I wasn’t feeling so good and then I heard about what took place, and I just wasn’t able to keep my mouth shut. I think everyone makes mistakes like that from time to time and I am no different. They’re unfortunate, such mishaps, but what can we do living in a fallen world.”

8. Smother the events in the language of attack:

It is unbelievable that with such egregious deeds, I could be expected to not condemn what is worthy of condemnation. Someone has to stand up for the truth and that is precisely what I was doing. To talk about my slip in the presence of such irresponsibility is senseless.”

There are many ways to avoid accusing ourselves by excusing ourselves. But there is one way to confess properly: to come before our compassionate Savior with total honesty and great humility, accusing no one, but ourselves.

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