Repentance is the Greatest Virtue

A Jin minister once said to his lord Duke Ling (Zuo Zhuan, Year II of Duke Xuan),

Who among men is without transgression? But, when one has transgressed, being able to repent — of virtues none is greater.

He said this in remonstrance after the duke, seeing that his bear paws (an ancient Chinese delicacy) had been undercooked, had barbarically killed the chef, discarded him into a wicker box and had the widow transport the body and take it across the morning court. He warned that the ruler’s ability to repent (turn around his actions) was crucial to the survival of the state, just as if it were the very altars upon which the state’s existence was founded.

Though this was written in a society without divine Scripture, I think this is an important thing to remember: that God wants us to know our transgression and humble ourselves before Him in repentance. Of virtues none is greater, because without this grace of God no other virtue will avail us of anything. No other cultivation is even possible without the will and the persistence to change, for what cultivation will make no change?

The Chinese word 善, which I have translated here as “virtue”, does not imply something of ourselves but refers to any good thing or “the good”. Repentance, too, is from God, lest anyone should boast.

Classical Chinese literature has many gems of truth. I think this is one of them.


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