Wisdom Devotionals

Paying Penance?

Friday, March 13, 2020


Psalm 25:18

Look upon my affliction and trouble and forgive all my sins.

Mark McGowan, a graduate student at Goldsmiths College in London, became overwhelmed one day with $24,000 of student debt and decided to do something about it. 

In an act of self-sacrifice and great determination, Mark got down on all fours and pushed a peanut with his nose all the way from his front porch to the home of the Prime Minister. His journey took eleven days!

A picture of McGowan, with his nose bandaged and his face to the ground, along with his story, was picked up by newspapers throughout England, and he quickly became a pop icon. He successfully raised public awareness of the financial needs of graduate students throughout England, and he had done it in an impressive, though slightly disturbing, way.

But despite the many people who were impressed by his gesture, the Prime Minister unfortunately wasn’t one of them. He informed McGowan that the school bills would still have to be paid in full.

A Buddhist priest nicknamed “the marathon monk” was given that name because he had recently finished an ancient running ritual in the remote Japanese mountains.

His Buddhist sect believed that the path to enlightenment could only be gained through a strenuous journey. He spent seven years systematically running, praying, and fasting—sometimes for nine days at a time without food, water, or sleep—going the distance that matched the circumference of the world.

The fundamental principle of these two accounts is that mankind believes a great debt, whether spiritual or financial, can be eliminated by great sacrifice.

Is it possible for believers to fall into this kind of thinking, after having been released from our sin debt by faith in the cross work of Christ?   Do we faithfully avoid the trap of believing that God’s forgiveness for daily unfaithfulness comes by acts of penance and self-sacrifice?

We all face the temptation to “pay” for our sins.  We might not push a peanut with our noses for eleven days or make an exhausting trek through a jungle, but we’ll give a little more in the offering plate on Sunday or try a little harder to contain our temper, consoling ourselves that God might grant us favor.

Those things may be good deeds that make us feel better about ourselves, but they can’t change the way God feels about us.  His thoughts about us are sealed forever and are inconceivably wonderful to Him. 

Having adopted us as sons and daughters, removing from our record the stains of sin, He has already washed us clean and placed us in Christ, without any lingering condemnation. We now await our glorification and coronation as co-regents with Christ.

In the meantime, don’t lose sight of your place.  Stop clinging to the cross of Christ with one hand while holding on to  acts of penance with the other. Don’t strip from God the praise He deserves for having paid for your sins in full.

Whatever you do for Christ will not earn forgiveness . . . do it as an act of praise because you have been forgiven.

Prayer Point: Don’t ask God to help you forget how sinful you are—you can’t, and He won’t.  But take your sins to Christ who suffered on your behalf—His blood continually cleanses you from all sin (I John 1:9).

Extra Refreshment: Read Hebrews 10:1-18, as the author of Hebrews compares our sacrifices to Christ’s sacrifice.