On the one hand, the feeling of relief after confession seems self-evident. On the other hand, taking it for granted is based rather on personal experience shared by many, than objective factors. Relief is, undoubtedly, a good thing. It really can be (and often is) the result of correct, attentive and sincere confession. It can testify to real repentance and be a sign of the forgiveness of sins. But does that mean that confession should always bring tangible relief?
We all know very well how deceiving even the strongest and most sincere feelings can be. For example, it is very easy to confuse repentance with guilt, or love with addiction. If such confusion is possible with familiar feelings, then all the more it is possible with something that is unknown to us. We often read about various spiritual manifestations in religious literature, but our sinfulness, passion and weaknesses do not allow us to experience anything of that kind. But we can easily be deceived, taking for a spiritual manifestation something sensual, mental or emotional. A person who mistakes the sensual for the spiritual easily falls into self-delusion, leading to a state of demonic deception, when he starts taking the play of feelings (which are corrupt, like everything in our nature) for works of grace and developing self-conceit and pride instead of spirituality.
In that case, relief is just a feeling, sharing a number of features intrinsic to human emotions: passion, corruption and communion with sin. Yes, such feelings are due to the weakness of human nature. Yes, they are an integral part of man as the creation of God. Yes, originally they, like all creation, are “very good.” But man is a fallen being, prone to sin and subject to corruption. It would be extremely rash to think that in human nature, disfigured by sin, any feeling could preserve its original purity. This is why on the pages of ascetic books, from the desert fathers of the 4th-7th centuries to Sts Ignatius Bryanchaninov and Theophan the Recluse we constantly run into the same rule: do not rush to trust feelings, especially when it comes to prayer or participation in the Sacraments. Almost everything that many of us are used to consider actions of grace is in fact caused by carnal and somatic sensations, emotional experiences, and sometimes frankly passionate movements of the soul. Therefore, when dealing with them we need to apply a simple rule: do not accept those that are there; do not pursue those that aren’t.
The conclusion suggests itself: with a sober, impartial attitude towards oneself, the feeling of relief as such should not turn into the goal of confession. Often such a feeling is a sign of simply getting something off one’s chest. However, unlike penance, thoroughness, attentiveness, sincerity of confession and the desire to correct one’s life, it does not testify to the forgiveness of sins. If, with all the above attributes present, a person does not feel relief, then there is nothing to fear. We know that God accepts our sincere repentance and confession. He forgives us our sins, but on a primitive sensory level this may not be expressed in any way. It is only natural that the cleansing touch of God to a human soul may well cause an emotional uplift, relief and joy. That is to say that a feeling of relief may well indicate the forgiveness of sins, but its absence does not mean that sins are not forgiven. Here it would be most correct to go by good conscience. If after confession we continue to suffer from qualms of conscience because of some sin, it means that something was wrong in this confession. It could be a conceived sin, our reluctance to correct our lives, a mechanical, thoughtless confession or, perhaps, a confession replaced by a long conversation about our problems rather than sins. All of these are factors leading to our sins not being forgiven. As you can see, everything is much more serious than the presence or absence of any particular feeling.
And yet, the answer to the question about not feeling relief after confession is simple: if you experience a feeling of relief, you should not “dwell” on it; if you do not have such a feeling, it should not be sought. And most importantly: let us not make the work that God does in our souls, forgiving our sins, conditional upon a purely human, sensual factor.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds