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    Guides on the Road to Eternity

    Repentance and remorse. The one calls us forward. The other calls us back.

    By Søren Kierkegaard

    May 11, 2022
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    This article is excerpted from this week’s free ebook, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard.


    Providence watches over each one of us as we journey through life providing us with two guides: repentance and remorse. The one calls us forward. The other calls us back. Yet they do not contradict each other, these two guides, nor do they leave the traveler in doubt or confusion. Rather, these two guides eternally understand each other. For the one calls forward to the Good, the other back from the evil. This is precisely why there are two of them, because in order to make our journey secure we must look ahead as well as look back.

    When a long procession is about to start, there is first a call from the person who is in the lead, but everyone waits until the last one has answered. The two guides call to a person early and late, and if he pays attention to their calls he finds the road and can know where he is. Likewise, Eternity’s two guides call out to us early and late, and when we listen to their call, we know where we are and where we are going. Of these two, the call of remorse is perhaps the better. For the eager traveler who travels casually and quickly along the way does not get to know it as well as does the traveler with his burden. The eager traveler hurries forward to something new, away from experience, but the remorseful one, the one who comes along afterward, laboriously gathers up the experience.

    These two guides call to us early and late. And yet, no, when remorse calls out it is always late. The call to find the road again by seeking God in the confession of sins is always at the eleventh hour. When remorse awakens guilt, whether it be in one’s youth, or in the twilight of one’s life, it does so always at the eleventh hour. It does not have much time at its disposal. It is not deceived by a false notion of a long life. For in the eleventh hour one understands life in a wholly different way than in the days of youth or in the busy time of adulthood or in the final days of old age. If we repent at any other hour of the day we fool ourselves – we fortify ourselves by a false and hasty conception of the insignificance of our guilt.

    oil painting of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus

    Ivan Aivazovsky, Jesus walks on water, 1888 (Public domain)

    True repentance does not belong to a certain period of life, as fun and games belong to childhood, or as the excitement of romantic love belongs to youth. It does not come and disappear as a whim or as a surprise. No, no. There is a sense of reverence, a holy fear, a humility, a pure sincerity which insures that repentance does not become vain and overhasty.

    From the point of view of the eternal, repentance must come “all at once,” where in one’s grief there is not even time to utter words. But the grieving of repentance and the heartfelt anxiety that floods the soul must not be confused with impatience or the momentary feeling of contrition. Experience teaches us that the right moment to repent is not always the one that is immediately present. Repentance can too easily be confused with a tormenting agonizing or with a worldly sorrow; with a desperate feeling of grief in itself. But by itself, sorrow never becomes repentance, no matter how long it continues to rage. However clouded the mind becomes, the sobs of contrition, no matter how violent they are, never become tears of repentance. They are like empty clouds that bear no water, or like convulsive puffs of wind. This kind of repentance is selfish. It is sensually powerful for the moment, excited in expression – and, for this very reason, is no real repentance at all. Sudden, quick repentance wants only to drink down the bitterness of sorrow in a single draught and then hurry on. It wants to get away from guilt, away from every reminder of it, and fortify itself by imagining that it does not want to be held back in the pursuit of the Good. What a delusion!

    Yes, in the temporal and social sense, repentance may come and go. But in the eternal sense, it is a quiet daily commitment before God.

    There is a story about a man who by his misdeeds deserved to be punished according to the law. After he had served his sentence he went back into ordinary society, reformed. He went to a foreign country, where he was unknown and where he became known for his upright conduct. All was forgotten. Then one day a fugitive appeared who recognized him from the past. The reformed man was terrified. A deathlike fear shook him each time the fugitive passed. Though silent, his fear shouted with a loud voice, until it became vocal in that dastardly fugitive’s voice. Despair suddenly seized him and it seized him just because he had forgotten his repentance. His self-improvement had never led him to surrender to God so that in the humility of repentance he might remember what he had once been.

    Yes, in the temporal and social sense, repentance may come and go. But in the eternal sense, it is a quiet daily commitment before God. In the light of eternity, one’s guilt is never changed, even if a century passes by. To think anything of this sort is to confuse the eternal with what it is least like – human forgetfulness. One can tell the age of a tree by looking at its bark. One can also tell a person’s age in the Good by the intensity and inwardness of his repentance. It may be said of a dancer that her time is past when her youth is gone, but not so with a penitent. Repentance, if it is forgotten, is nothing but immaturity. The longer and the more deeply one treasures it, however, the better it becomes.

    Repentance must not only have its time, but also its time of preparation. And herein lies the need of confession, the holy act that ought to be preceded by preparation. Just as a person changes his clothes for a celebration, so a person preparing for confession is inwardly changed. But if in the hour of confession one has not truly made up his mind he is still only distracted. He sees his sin with only half an eye. When he speaks, it is just talk – not true confession.

    We mustn’t forget that the One who is present in confession is omniscient. God knows everything, remembers everything, all that we have ever confided to him, or what we have ever kept from his confidence. He is the One “who sees in secret,” with whom we speak even in silence. No one can venture to deceive him either by talk or by silence. When we confess to God, therefore, we are not like a servant that gives account to his master for the administration entrusted to him because his master could not manage everything or be everywhere at once. Nor when we confess are we like one who confides in a friend to whom sooner or later he reveals things that his friend did not previously know. No, much of what you are able to keep hidden in darkness you only first get to know by revealing it to the all-knowing One. The all-knowing One does not get to know something about those who confess, rather those who confess find out something about themselves.

    Contributed By Søren Kierkegaard Søren Kierkegaard

    Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic, and spiritual writer.

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