Religious Reality
By A.E.J. Rawlinson

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Chapter III - Self-Examination and Repentance

“The unexamined life,” said Plato, “is not worth living.” Similar advice was given by Marcus Aurelius. The practice of self-examination, therefore, is not distinctive of Christianity: it is an obvious dictate of wisdom, wherever life and conduct are regarded seriously, that a man should from time to time take stock of himself in the light of his ideals and learn to know and recognize in detail where and how he has fallen short, and what are the besetting sins and weaknesses against which he must contend.

The Christian man will judge and try his life by the standards of Christ, with growing sensitiveness of conscience as spiritual experience deepens: not shrinking from the confession of sin and failure, desiring not to be self-deceived, but to know and to acknowledge the truth. There is nothing in this of priggishness or unreality. It is a necessary discipline. The Christian life is meant to bear the fruit of a character developing in growing likeness to the character of Christ: but none is suddenly made perfect: the old Adam dies hard: and the Christian by confession of repeated failure may at least learn the lesson of humility and self-distrust.

The rightful complement of self-distrust is trust in GOD: the rightful issue of self-examination and confession is the realization of divine forgiveness, fresh courage, and a new start. The very core of the Gospel is here. He who has bidden men forgive those who trespass against them “unto seventy times seven” is not to be outdone in generosity by man. But in order that sin may be forgiven it must be acknowledged as sin against GOD and treachery to Christ, and repented of with true sorrow of heart. Repentance is not mere self-contempt, self-pity, or remorse. It is sorrow for sin, which has for its motive the love of GOD and the realization that human sin meant and means in the experience of GOD the Cross.

Nothing so deepens the religious life as true repentance, nor is there anything so fatal to true religion as self-righteousness. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” “To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” But the first prerequisite of repentance is self-knowledge–a difficult matter. Gross carnal offences, strong and flagrant sins, if such there be, are obvious and upon the surface. The subtler sins of the spirit– thoughtlessness, for example, or snobbishness or priggishness and pride–though we are quick to remark upon them in others, are apt in our own case to pass undetected. It is the Spirit who convinces men of sin. Only as we are resolute to enter into “the mind of the Spirit" can we hope to know ourselves as in the sight of GOD we really are.

The matter is complicated by the fact that those who, as things are, most systematically practise self-examination and confession of sin too often view the matter in a somewhat narrowly ecclesiastical spirit, and make use of forms of self-examination which mix up real and serious moral offences with “sins” which are merely ceremonial, trivial, or imaginary, as though the two stood precisely upon the same level. “One must abstain from sexual sin and not go to dissenting places of worship; one must not steal and must be sure to abstain from meat on Fridays.” A man’s own sense of reality should enable him to guard against this sort of thing, and if fixed forms of self- examination are used, to use them with discretion.

The forms most commonly suggested in manuals of devotion are based upon the Ten Commandments. This is in accordance with the teaching of the compilers of the English Prayer-book, who, after bidding intending communicants to “search and examine” their “own consciences (and that not lightly, and after the manner of dissemblers with GOD),” proceed to lay down that “the way and means thereto is: First, to examine your lives and conversations by the rule of God’s commandments: and whereinsoever ye shall perceive yourselves to have offended, either by will, word or deed, there to bewail your own sinfulness, and to confess yourselves to Almighty GOD, with full purpose of amendment of life.”

The Commandments are, however, as they stand, both negative in form and Judaistic in character, and if used in this way as a “rule” of Christian conduct must be spiritualized and reinterpreted in the light of the Gospel. The second and fourth Commandments, in particular, are in their literal significance obsolete for Christians: it is a false Puritanism which would forbid sculpture and religious symbolism in the adornment of a Christian church, nor is any one in the modern world likely to confuse the symbol with the thing symbolized: while the observance of the Sabbath is part of that older ceremonial “law” from which S. Paul insisted that Christian converts should be free (Coloss. ii. 16). There is, however, a spiritual idolatry which consists in allowing any other object than the glory of GOD and the doing of His will to have the primary place in the determination of conduct–there are men who worship money, or comfort, or ambition, or their own domestic happiness, or even themselves. And the Commandment about the Sabbath, though it has no literal value to-day (and certainly no direct bearing upon the sanction or significance of Sunday) may serve to suggest the important principle that a man is responsible before GOD for the use he makes of his time, and that it is a religious duty (not confined to any particular day of the week) to distribute it in due proportion, according to circumstance and opportunity, with proper regard to the rightful claims of work, of worship, and of recreation and rest. The remaining Commandments are capable of being similarly interpreted as suggesting broad positive principles rather than as merely prohibiting wrong actions of a particular and definite kind: and so treated they form as convenient a framework as any other for a scheme of questions for self-examination.

It is possible, however, that some men may prefer to use as their basis some standard more distinctively Christian than the ancient law of Judaism–for example, the Beatitudes (Matt. v. 1-12) or the “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. v. 22). A man will in any case do well either to frame or to adapt his own scheme for self-examination, with special regard paid to whatever he may discover by experience to be a besetting sin or weakness, or a temptation to which he is particularly exposed. It should be remembered that the measure of what is wrong in a man’s life is the measure of the contrast between his character and that of Christ, and that the chief flaws in Christian character and achievement (which are also those most likely to pass undetected) are not uncommonly such as fall under the head of “sins of omission" rather than of commission–the leaving undone of what ought to have been done, the failure to exhibit positively in relation to GOD and man the qualities of faith and hope and love. A man should ask himself wherein he has chiefly failed, and come short of the glory of GOD: whether he is loyally observing any self-imposed rule of life and discipline, and fulfilling any resolutions which may have been made, or any obligations which have been undertaken. Having made in this manner an honest attempt to discover his own shortcomings and failures before GOD, let him with equal honesty confess them, seek forgiveness, and in the spirit of repentance and restored sonship start again.

The late Lieutenant Donald Hankey, better known as “A Student in Arms,” criticizes Churchmen of a certain type as being unwholesomely preoccupied with the thought of their sins, and allowing their consciences to become a burden to them. They should, he says, ’think less of themselves, and trust the Holy Spirit more. The advice is excellent: but morbid scrupulosity is not a common fault of English laymen. The habit, as Mr. Chesterton expresses it, of “chopping up life into small sins with a hatchet” is, of course, to be avoided: but the purpose of self-examination and self-knowledge is not to encourage morbid introspection, but by frank acknowledgment and repentance to get rid of the past and with recovered hope and serenity to reach forward towards the future. A man cannot “walk in the Spirit” unless he is inwardly “right with GOD.”

With regard to sacramental confession, the rule of the Church of England is sane and clear. It may be expressed by saying that “none must, but all may, and some should” make use of it. In the case of a conscience seriously burdened in such a way that a man hesitates to present himself for Holy Communion unabsolved, to go to confession is obviously the right remedy. There are other cases in which men find by experience that it helps them to be more honest and candid with themselves, with GOD, and with the Church, if they go to confession from time to time as a piece of self-discipline and a needed spiritual tonic. Yet others discover that they flounder less in spiritual things, and that their religious life is deepened and made stronger, if they place themselves for a time under wise direction. Systematic direction, of course, has obvious dangers. It may tend to destroy independence of character. It may cause a man to become “priest- ridden.” But the dangers are not inevitable, and there are without doubt cases in which it is of value. Much obviously depends upon the wisdom and common sense of the director. The Prayer-book refers penitents to a “discreet and learned” minister of GOD’S Word. If a man proposes to practise habitual confession he will do well to assure himself of the discretion and learning of the priest whose help he seeks.

The method of making a sacramental confession is simple. Self- examination is made beforehand, the results being, if need be, written down, either in full, or in the form of notes to assist the memory. A first confession should cover the whole life so far as remembered, from childhood upwards: subsequent confessions the period since the last was made. The confession should aim at completeness, an effort being made to remember not only specific acts of wrongdoing, but slight failings and weaknesses of character and the general lines and tendencies of faulty spiritual development. Symptoms should, if possible, be distinguished from causes, habits and tendencies and besetting sins from isolated acts. Cases in which a sin has been deliberate should be noted as such: but there should be no dwelling upon extenuating circumstances or intermingling of claims to virtues or graces of character with the admission of defects. No names may be mentioned, nor may third persons be incriminated by any form of words which would enable the confessor to recognize their identity. The priest hears the confession sitting in a chair. The penitent kneels beside him and confesses as follows:–"I confess to GOD Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, before the whole company of heaven, and before you, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by my own fault. Especially I accuse myself that (since my last confession, which was...ago) I have committed the following sins.... [Here follows the confession in detail: after which]. ... For these and all my other sins which I cannot now remember, I humbly ask pardon of GOD, and of you, father, penance, counsel and absolution. Wherefore I ask GOD to have mercy upon me, and you to pray for me to the Lord our GOD. Amen.”

The confessor then gives advice and counsel according to his wisdom, commonly imposes a penance, and if assured of the sincerity of the penitent, pronounces absolution according to the form prescribed in the Prayer-book Office for the Visitation of the Sick.


Preface  •  Author’s Preface  •  Introduction  •  Part I - The Theory of the Christian Religion: Chapter I - the Man Christ Jesus  •  Chapter II - The Revelation of the Father  •  Chapter III - The Fellowship of the Spirit  •  Chapter IV - The Holy Trinity  •  Chapter V - The Problem of Evil  •  Chapter VI - Sin and Redemption  •  Chapter VII - The Church and Her Mission in the World  •  Chapter VIII - Protestant and Catholic  •  Chapter IX - Sacraments  •  Chapter X - The Last Things  •  Chapter XI - Clergy and Laity  •  Chapter XII - The Bible  •  Part II - The Practice of the Christian Religion: Chapter I - The Christian Aim  •  Chapter II - The Way of the World  •  Chapter III - The Spirit and the Flesh  •  Chapter IV - The Works of the Devil  •  Chapter V - The Kingdom of God  •  Chapter VI - Christianity and Commerce  •  Chapter VII - Christianity and Industry  •  Chapter VIII - Christianity and Politics  •  Chapter IX - Christianity and War  •  Chapter X - Love, Courtship, and Marriage  •  Part III - The Maintenance of the Christian Life: Chapter I - How to Begin  •  Chapter II - Prayer  •  Chapter III - Self-Examination and Repentance  •  Chapter IV - Corporate Worship and Communion  •  Chapter V - The Devotional Use of the Bible  •  Chapter VI - Almsgiving and Fasting

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Religious Reality
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