Penance: The Real Reason We Never Seem to Have Any Fun

 Penance might be defined as “voluntary self-punishment as a result of sin,” but we can all identify it as the real reason we never (or at least rarely) have any fun.  Let’s face it, when a person is feeling like God is looking down on him or her with displeasure, it’s hard to get any real enjoyment or contentment in life.

Putting it all out on the table, we all have sinned, and consequently, we all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  I would like to argue, however, that we are looking at this verse in the wrong light.  We are assuming that we could possibly attain (through our own herculean efforts) the glory of God, and by discounting what’s said in the following verse, we set ourselves up for a life of penance:

            and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (NIV, Romans 3:24)

I’ve been reading a humorous memoir by Suzanne Morrison called Yoga Bitch:  One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment.  In this book, Morrison travels to Bali to take part in a yoga school/retreat in an effort to do battle with her fear of death and to search for God.  Interestingly, Morrison details her struggles with the idea of penance, or having to make up for wrongs she has done, even though she considers herself an atheist:

            Penance is in my bones…I think it stems from seeds of superstition left over from a childhood belief in an omniscient creator.  I imagine this creator, this observer, as a sort of annoying sibling in the sky, forever calling me on my bullshit.  When I lie or cheat, I actually feel like that annoying sibling in the sky calls down, “Bullshit, Suzie, BULLSHIT!”  and that anyone nearby, if they’re at all sensitive to the catcalls of the gods, can hear him, so I behave accordingly, and try to make amends for what I have done. (34)

I find it interesting that even an atheist such as Morrison struggles with the idea that a Great Observer is keeping tabs on her wrongdoing, and that there is the expectation that it needs to be “made up.”  It’s been my observation that many Christians, disregarding what Romans 3:23-24 says,  fall into this same camp and spend their lives never really enjoying themselves because they are worried about making amends, as if God was an official scorekeeper rather than a loving Father.

Morrison discusses her struggle with guilt and penance, and describes it in terms that many of us Christians can identify with:

            …The best penance is the free-floating kind you vaguely engage with every day until you die, like a mild flu bug that doesn’t keep you from going in to work but ensures that you won’t enjoy yourself while you’re there.  The longer you can suffer, the more you please God.  Self-loathing, you see, is nothing more than agreeing with Him.  This type of penance takes no self-discipline, just a good memory stuck on repeat. (34)

Unfortunately, the idea of penance (recognized or not) is still a profound part of many Christians’ relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The idea that our loving Father expects us to suffer reveals how warped our perception of God really is.  The idea of penance demonstrates a view of God that refuses to accept the divine handout of grace, and says, “I’ll take care of this sin problem myself.”  By opening our eyes to the true character of the Triune God, we can stop holding on to the idea that we can and must make amends.  It’s time to agree with God that we are worthy of His grace and love, not because of any penance, but because we are His.  The grace of God will enable us to enjoy life, knowing we have the unconditional love and acceptance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

~by Nan Kuhlman


4 comments so far

  1. Jeannine on

    Awesome post, Nan – such an important topic! I think so much of this goes on at a sub-conscious level, which is why even an atheist would experience this – and why, as free as I think I am from much of this consciously, those inner “demons” can still get me from time to time (every day if don’t acknowledge what is going on and remember what you have said above). I may have essentially left behind trying to measure up in God’s eyes, but my own eyes turned upon myself can be harsh and exacting in a way that His, thankfully, are not.

    • Nan Kuhlman on


      I guess we really are our own “worst enemy” at times, and unfortunately, we paint God’s face as if he reflects that, too. As you know, once we relax in his loving acceptance, life is so much better!

  2. Leona Forste on

    Thank you for the article on Penance. I think penance didn’t equate to me from what I once thought about it, looking back. It was a big problem living in legalism. (Old WCG). After the past 10 years of re-education in what grace is and isn’t I think more of balancing energy and making wiser decisions on ‘time management’. Guilt hasnt been so much a part of my life since the new focus in GCI. Maturity, parenting and knowing the love of God has meant everything for leaving penance in the past. I will never be perfect as much as I would like to, and God has called me redeemed, forgiven and His child. Raising a large family pictures to me what God wants for us, the same as I want for my children….to mature in Christ so we can have a loving relationship. And I cant pay for anything or make up for anything. Jesus already did it for me.
    Thank you for this check on reality. Leona

    • Nan Kuhlman on

      I like your word picture of raising a large family, desiring loving relationships above all else. Thanks for your comment!

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