Watching A Christmas Carol last week I was struck with the theme of repentance. I was trying to decide how it fits with my thoughts on good intentions. What does repentance really refer to and how do most people use the term? Most simply, repentance is usually thought of as being sorry that you’ve done something wrong. This is sometimes coupled with the expectation of not repeating the mistake. If we separate intentions from actual outcome, any mistakes or sins of which we might repent happen in one of three ways.
1) We intended bad and we did bad.
2) We intended good and we did bad.
3) We weren’t really paying attention, had no particular intention, and the outcome was bad.
Is repentance available for all three? If yes, do we consider it the same kind of repentance, or are there different flavors?
1) Bad -> bad
This seems the least likely candidate in my mind for repentance. If you had a thought to do something bad, then took the time to consider it as bad, then decided to act on it and create bad in the world…well you probably aren’t concerned with God’s opinion or anyone you might be hurting. So repentance is an option for you, but you probably won’t seek it. I can’t say what repentance would mean in a case like this, because it’s difficult for me to imagine a person truly wanting a bad thing to happen and only later seeing it as wrong. (Lying to yourself about your intent is something a little different which I’d put in category 3.)
2) Good intent -> bad
You meant to save the life of a chipmunk by swerving your car and ran over a cat. It is definitely a mistake which you can learn from (swerve more gently next time) but would the learning experience be considered repentance? You are probably sorry and vow to not repeat the mistake. My guess is that most people would not consider this repentance. If it is, then it’s a lesser variety.
3) Indifference -> bad
This I would imagine is by far the most common reason for bad actions/results. This includes anything you didn’t think through or didn’t think about. This is every case of stupidity that transmitted a sexual disease and every drunk who crashed into another car. This is me in high school basically telling a friend that homosexuality is disgusting and later realizing he was probably gay. It was stupid and uninformed and probably messed this guy up. This is what repentance means for me. I wish so hard I hadn’t done that. I am really sorry. I will never repeat the mistake. And I really didn’t have a particular intention when I did it, I just hadn’t thought about my own opinions much or what it might be like to be gay in a Catholic town.
Having no particular intention is what we are doing most of the time with our lives. How many of us really micromanage our thoughts to find ways of being good at every moment? I think far more often, we skip that part. It can be unintentional as my above examples are. But I would also include willful inattentiveness in this category. If you see leftover snacks from a college event and the cleanup crew are all back in the kitchen, can you take the food? Maybe. It’s very possible they are going to throw it away. Or maybe the leftover food is meant for the kitchen help or another event, or is going to a food bank. You could ask, or you could stop yourself from even considering these things because, you know, you really want snacks and it probably doesn’t really equal stealing. I am 99% sure they were just going to throw those snacks away and would have given them to me. But I don’t know for sure. And since I’ve ignored possible outcomes like this, I can see how easy it might be to ignore bigger things and tell yourself it’s probably fine. Until someone points out what actually happened. Which brings we to my original reason for posting; my pondering on Ebenezer Scrooge’s repentance. As a youngster I assumed it was the unlikely type of repentance I mentioned in example 1. He was a bad guy doing bad deeds because he liked it, then somehow saw the error of his ways and became good. Only I don’t think this is how it was meant in the book, or the numerous movies. I don’t think Scrooge was as frightened by the threat of eternal punishment as he was touched by the thought of Tiny Tim’s death as an innocent. Scrooge didn’t think that by underpaying Bob Cratchit he was sentencing a young boy to death. He should probably have thought more about all the things he was doing. And it seemed he did in his younger days before he got sidetracked by his career. It was the knowledge that he was doing things that harmed others that finally reminded Scrooge to pay closer attention and make some changes in his life. My guess is that most repentance looks like this.