top of page

Forcing Penance Payment

(By Ruth Petterson McDonald)

Exactly one month ago today, she had allowed a distraction to interfere with her driving. A crying baby in the backseat shifted her focus for one second - one little second, and it resulted in a costly car accident. Thankfully, she and the baby were both perfectly okay. However, their new family SUV had suffered moderate damage, putting them out a few thousand dollars and the inconvenience of being down a vehicle while it was being repaired. She gave an honest tear-filled apology, and a promise to pay more attention in the future. It was over - and it was the best she could do.

As the weeks passed, he dropped comments. Things like "Money wouldn't be as tight right now if you hadn't had that accident." And "Be careful today and try to stay focused while you drive." He asked her for favors after reminding her of her mistake. He mentioned it around a co-worker, and he teased her about her driving skills. And every single action and word revealed a simple truth - he really hadn't forgiven her. Real forgiveness doesn't look like that. Because of her mistake, he was making her pay penance, and it really stunk. 

I wish I could say this was rare in relationships, but it's not. We tease. We bring up the past. We remind. We lecture. And each of these behaviors shows an unwillingness to truly forgive. Forgiveness that requires penance isn't real. And it reveals something else about us too - pride in self and insecurity. Some do this on some pretty obvious levels, and some do it less conspicuously. I've been guilty myself, of using a moment of confession as an opportunity to get my way. And when we think of how a marriage is to resemble a picture of Jesus and His church (all Christians), it makes us shrink back in shame. Because penance is the very opposite of what Jesus requires from us.

My mind goes back to my childhood, and a trip we took to Mexico City. As a young girl, I was stunned to see an older man crawling on the street toward the huge, ornate church building. He had pulled up his pant legs to allow the hot, cement pavement to burn and shred away the skin on his knees. I remembering just staring, feeling sad, and asking my parents why he was doing this. I learned he was “paying penance" for his sin - hoping with this painful sacrifice, that he would receive forgiveness. And yet 2,000 years ago, the price for our sin was paid through the painful, substitutionary action of our Savior - Jesus. He paid for our sins with His own body on the cross, so that we would never have to pay the price for them. His gospel says this: "no penance required" on our part. 

In light of His gift to us, it's so wrong that we often feel others owe us for their past mistakes. We feel they should be indebted, and are tempted to bring up their past behavior. Friends - God never does this with His own. He doesn't withhold love from us, simply because we sin against Him. My own life should mirror this same principle, when faced with hurtful actions of others. If they apologize (and even if they don't), no penance is required from them. And nothing on my end should make them feel they owe me for what they did in the past. If you're flinging up dirt from the past - especially in your marriage, can I encourage you to stop? If you truly have forgiven them - an action mirroring God's grace to us, then leave it in the past. Don't bring it up. Even when you really want to. Because when we can give them freedom for their mistakes, we find that we are a little bit more like Jesus - and that's the real goal. 

“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV).

“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Hebrews 8:12 ESV).

"I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25 ESV).

”Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7 ESV).

Dear heavenly Father, it's so easy for us to hold grudges, and to bring up the sins of others. We feel entitled because they have wronged us, and we remind them of the debt they owe us. Jesus- this behavior is completely unlike Yours. Help us to change our ways, and truly forgive and let it go. In Your name we pray, Amen!

About me: I began writing in 2017, after my marriage fell apart from infidelity. This was such an unexpected life event, and I used writing as a form of therapy. I ended up writing a daily devotional, Hope in These Light Afflictions, for the betrayed spouse. God has opened doors for me to reach others, and best of all, He restored my husband and healed our marriage. We make our home in Denver, NC, and have two young adult children. I am thankful for the avenues God has opened for me to share our story with others. If you ever need a friend, please message me at


bottom of page