How forgiveness and reconciliation bring us peace and spiritual cleansing.

  1. The burden of sin.

  2. Cleansing our soul.

  3. Renewal of the mind.
The burden of sin.
Confessing and obtaining forgiveness for one’s sins is a deeply important aspect of being a believer. Prior to confession and absolution, wrongdoers have several burdens to bear:
  • We're mindful of the fact that negative consequences have or could result from our actions.

  • We desire to make amends, if possible.

  • Even after amends have been made, to the best of our abilities, we remain uncertain about whether reparations have truly been adequate.

  • If wrongs can't be rectified, or debts fully repaid, for whatever reason, then feelings of guilt may persist indefinitely.
These concerns tend to leave us with a slight sense of unease, if they do not condemn us altogether to sleepless nights and tormented days. If our transgressions are severe, it may seem completely impossible to put things right, or to atone in a way that matches the magnitude of wrongdoing.

This applies to sins both large and small- war crimes, outbursts of rage, acts of childhood cruelty, unkindness to strangers- we all experience some degree of guilt over previous actions. To make things worse, we’re also painfully aware of our propensity for making future mistakes even though we try our best not to.
Cleansing our soul.
So, what happens during an act of confession? How are we affected, psychologically, upon admission of wrongdoing to ourselves and to God?

Firstly, the admission itself helps us to cope with guilt. When we deny our sins, not only do we have to deal with the burden of having done something wrong, we also have to battle with the sense of guilt that arises from the act of denial. Denial prevents us from making any amends that might help to nullify the fault.

The term 'cognitive dissonance' is used in psychology to describe the internal conflicts that arise when one harbours incompatible beliefs simultaneously, and has to resort to denial or suppression of certain beliefs, and bend logic in order to justify the selective application of other beliefs, depending on the circumstances. We lie to ourselves in an attempt to convince ourselves that we're not truly in the wrong. Confession of sin helps to remove that smokescreen.

Furthermore, admission of sin means that we can begin to make amends. Once we realize the fact that positive, concrete action can be taken, the planning and execution of ameliorating steps makes us feel partially absolved, and helps to lessen the sense of guilt.

When our debts have been paid, whether to people, or their descendants, or to the environment, or society at large, then we feel as though we have managed, in some way, to compensate for our sins. If we receive feedback that, indeed, the victim of our acts has been appeased and forgives us, then this may be enough to set our hearts at peace once more. If, on the other hand, their forgiveness is insufficient to set us free from guilt, then the situation appears irresolvable, and we’ve to live with that burden on our conscience.

Religion offers what, for many of us, is the only genuine solution. If we confess our sins, God Himself forgives us- not just society, not just other human beings, and not just the environment. No form of absolution could be higher. God and only God has the power to grant us absolution that is permanent, all-encompassing, and genuine. No matter how wicked, thoughtless, or hurtful we may have been, we can turn to Him when our burden is too much to bear, and God wipes our record clean again.

This has a tremendous impact on our psyche. We believe that prior to absolution, our sins stay unresolved and uncorrected, staining the world with their irredeemable ugliness. As soon as we earnestly confess our wrongdoing, if we believe that our gracious and merciful God has cleansed us from sin and wiped away our blemishes, then the doubts, burdens, and heaviness of responsibility and self-loathing are lifted off our shoulders.

In other words, our self-image has changed drastically. Before, we were defiled by sin. After receiving forgiveness, our self-perception has undergone a dramatic shift for the better. Our minds are no longer weighed down with uncertainty and guilt. Our soul is fresh and blameless again.

We can move on from the unfortunate issue, and throw ourselves with renewed passion into other activities. We may now go about our daily lives, having made peace with the world.
Renewal of the mind.
Remind yourself, however, of the fact that this shift in beliefs, which occurred during the asking and receiving of forgiveness, is contained wholly in our minds. It arises from an internal adjustment of our perceptions. If you genuinely believe that God exists, and that He cleansed you from sin, then your confidence in the accompanying belief, that you are guilt-free, will be unshakeable.

In such a situation, it is far more beneficial to subscribe strongly to one’s beliefs, than half-heartedly, because the more decisively one lets go of guilt and shame, the easier it is to move on. The placebo effect relies on a similar concept- when people genuinely believe that consumption of a pill brings substantial physical benefit, this psychological receptivity often induces tangible effects in their bodies, because our brains are part of, and closely integrated with, the rest of our body.

The key thing to understand here is that our beliefs are able to affect our brain in powerful and palpable ways. Our feelings of wellbeing, satisfaction, and pleasure do not arise mysteriously from nowhere- they stem from actual increases in levels of certain chemicals in our brains. The biochemical effects of mood-affecting substances such as dopamine and serotonin, and their production in the brain, is firmly established in the neuroscientific literature. In people who suffer from depression, for instance, some component of the brain mechanism that produces feelings of happiness and satisfaction is faulty.

One need not necessarily delve into the minute details to realise that our bodies are fully capable of influencing our sense of well-being, and vice versa. When we believe that we are blessed with God's grace and are recipients of His generosity and compassion, our bodies produce higher amounts of the chemicals and neurotransmitters that cause us to feel happier about ourselves and our situation.

Furthermore, physical changes in brain circuitry allow us to feel permanently free of guilt, regarding the sin for which we received forgiveness. When we believe that difficulties have been eradicated and sins have been washed away by the blood of the Lamb, for example, then neuronal connections in our brain, which previously caused us to feel worried and guilty in association with our wrongful act, are reduced, whereas neuronal circuits that allow us to feel better become reinforced, and thereby enhance our sense of well-being.

The bottom line is that our belief in God is the sole cause of all these changes, not God Himself. The healing effects we experience when we ask for forgiveness can be explained without evoking the existence of God, and are merely dependent on the existence of our belief in Him.

Those of you who have followed my arguments closely will recognise that in no way am I denying that by maintaining a belief in His healing power, we experience truly positive benefits and can lead happier and more productive lives. I am simply stating that the presence of positive effects that are induced by a belief in God’s existence have nothing to do with the question of His actual existence.

Furthermore, people who do not believe in God’s existence are able to experience the same perceptual shifts, and attain a similar levels of psychological wellbeing, to those of believers, using slightly different methods.

Instead of believing that God listens to prayers for forgiveness and cleanses their spirit, they assess the nature and extent of their wrongdoing, and make a decision, whether consciously or not, to absolve themselves. They effectively cast their burdens aside and gain mental refreshment, without invoking the existence of God.

(For more about forgiveness in the context of prayer, refer to the section on Personal Prayer.)

People across the world, with different religious beliefs, experience feelings of cleansing and renewal after asking their respective deities for forgiveness. Those of you who believe that true forgiveness can be issued only by the god(s) of your religion, and none other, have to remember that people of other faiths experience similar feelings of absolution. The human psyche is fully capable of producing these changes, independently of the specific nature of one’s beliefs about God.
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