Repentance is a big focus during the season of Lent ,which is one of the reasons some people don’t particularly care for Lent. Who wants to spend a lot of time dwelling on their mistakes, shortcomings and weaknesses? Who needs another round of self-flagellation over the injuries we’ve caused others? What good can come from navel-gazing and wallowing in self-pity? And besides, the thinking goes, “I’m not so bad, especially compared to those people.” All of this misses the point entirely.
Repentance, properly understood and practiced, is a healing, cleansing activity. It offers the same sense that I get when I come inside after a day of intense yard work and hop in the shower. Inevitably I am hot, grubby, and sweaty, with dirt under my nails and bits of twigs and leaves in my hair. Nothing feels better than standing under a jet stream of water that relieves my achy muscles and washes away the debris of the day’s activity. When I am done, I feel like a new person—clean, relaxed and ready to sit down with a cup of tea.
That’s a picture of what repentance does. It invites us, first of all, to get honest with ourselves as we get honest with God. No, maybe we haven’t killed anyone or robbed a bank, but there’s a family member we haven’t talked to in years because of a grudge. We are secretly envious of a friend. We are angry. We worry. We look down on people of a particular ethnic background or ignore the homeless woman as she pushes her cart past us on the sidewalk. We are self-absorbed, impatient, and arrogant. We are easily offended. We withhold affection as punishment. Our “inner critic” or our fears run (and ruin) our lives. In ways big and small we fail to be fully, joyfully, authentically human. We fail to live the way of self-sacrificing love, to be kind and generous, to pray for those who hurt us.
Repentance is what allows me to find my way back to center. In confession I am washed clean by the mercy and forgiveness of God. I am renewed and restored and sent out to do the work of renewal and restoration in my other relationships and in the wider world. In confession I remember who I am. I remember that I am loved by God and claimed as one of God’s own family members. My life is sourced by the power of God’s Spirit. I don’t do the work of renewal and restoration in my own strength but in God’s. Because of repentance, I can live in joyful freedom and extend that joyful freedom to others.
Presbyterian pastor and poet J. Barrie Shepherd states the matter with both clarity and eloquence:
By Reverend J. Barrie Shepherd
There is a proper penitence
that leads across this leaning-forward season,
no mere regret or manufactured mortifying,
no self-imposed remorse about
those mild suburban sins that spot
and stain the corners of our copybooks,
rather a purging
as of earth preparing Springtime,
a melting, washing action like the rain,
a breaking up and turning over
of the soil that is the human soul,
a casting off of chrysalis
that old and wrinkled yet familiar skin
before the aching ecstasy of flight
on wings unfolding iridescence
to the new spilled light.
May you find joy, healing and cleansing in the practice of repentance this Lenten season.
Yours for the Kingdom,