The Church teaches that there is a difference between attrition and contrition.
Attrition is fear of punishment for something that we have done because we know or have been taught that it’s wrong, even if we don’t completely understand or agree.
Contrition is sorrow for sin because we have offended one that we love. Fear of punishment or a desire for a reward isn’t the only motivator behind contrition. Restoration of the relationship matters more. Typically in the Act of Contrition that is recited, we state “I am sorry for my sins…because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but most of all, because they offend thee O God whom I should love above all things.”
Right there we see the progression from attrition (fearing the loss of heaven and the pains of hell) to contrition (whom I should love above all things).
Take a common example: A couple who struggles to live out the Church’s teaching on birth control and family planning. Financial worries, health concerns and sometimes the simple desire not to have another child play into a couple’s decision to use contraception which they know the Church teaches is sinful because it detracts from the free, total, faithful and fruitful sacramental nature of the sexual relationship between spouses. Should they confess even if they don’t think they’re going to stop? Yes.
Confession is all about conversion, healing and deepening our relationship with God. All of these are a process, part of our journey. None of them will be perfected until we reach heaven. As long as we’re open to changing our behaviors or learning more about why the Church teaches what it does, we can be absolved and receive grace. This is different from presumption, where we basically tell God that we’re not giving up my sin and He’ll just have to deal with it.
Jesus never said that sin is too great to be forgiven or to go ahead and keep on sinning, he’ll take care of it for us. Our relationship with Jesus always calls us to “go and sin no more.”
St. John Vianney's theology of confession is also very reassuring. He said that only Jesus is the perfect penitent. All of us, no matter how virtuous we might be, fall short of being perfectly contrite. Going to confession to “receive heaven” shows some selfish desire. Jesus, because He gave up heaven and suffered death purely for love’s sake, is able to perfect our imperfect contrition. St. John Vianney said that when we offer God our attrition or imperfect contrition, Jesus takes it upon Himself and perfects it as He offers Himself to God the Father for our sake. Thus, there is a connection between the confessional and the altar.
Scripture tells us that God sees all of us as sinners so that He might show us His mercy. Each of us wrestles in some way with living out the Gospel perfectly in our lives. The good news is that God understands the struggle, and just asks that we have the courage and humility to bring the struggle to Him, that we might partake more deeply of His mercy and grace and continue our journey towards becoming the saints we are called to be.
So when it doubt, confess!