Dr. Daniel Vestal: Repentance - A Lenten Meditation

In the mid-80s there was a British film entitled "The Mission." A key figure in the story is a man by the name of Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert de Niro. He is a mercenary who commits murder in a fit of rage. He is not executed but enters into a deep depression. He is commanded to perform some acts of penance, and at a turning point in the movie he comes to an emotional and spiritual break point. In a dramatic scene he releases all the anguish, pain and remorse in his heart. As he weeps in sorrow he presents what Scripture calls "a broken and contrite heart."

All through the Bible, both in Old and New Testament, the idea of repentance is tied to the idea of faith. Scripture is not soft on the subject of sin. The Bible is clear that as human beings we are created in the image of God, but we are fallen and broken. And though we are loved by God we cannot experience redemption in Christ apart from an honest recognition of our sin and a genuine repentance from it.

It is difficult in our day to speak of repentance in a way that sounds like it is good news instead of bad news. We live in a time where the idea of sin is minimized, if not mocked. We live in a prevailing and popular culture that says whatever "feels good" or "seems right" or "appears appropriate" to the individual is then affirmed as acceptable. Personal pleasure and the pursuit of happiness is the highest good. Talk about repentance is a "downer."

It's also difficult to talk about repentance because sin is a theological term, and we don't like to think theologically. Sin is more than making a mistake. Sin is more than failure. Sin is more than psychological or sociological disorder. It is rebellion against God. It is willfull disobedience, and it results in pain, guilt and confusion. Try as we may, we cannot make excuses for our sin. We are responsible, and we must bear consequences for our sin.

It is also difficult to talk about repentance because so many in the Church have done so as if they enjoyed it. Some seem to relish and delight in telling people they are going to hell or that they are evil or that they deserve judgment. For too long many in the church have preached repentance as if is bad news, instead of good news.

In actual fact repentance is part of the Gospel and a reason for rejoicing. In Luke 15 Jesus said that "there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." The call to repentance may be "hard news" but it is still good news, because it presupposes that we can repent. We can change and be changed. And God not only welcomes us when we do, but God makes it possible for us to do it.

Through the years I have been very active in the "recovering community" ministering with folk who suffer addictions. At least 5 of the 12 steps in AA are about gut level honesty with God, with self and with others. This is the way of change. Step 1: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable." Step 4, "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." Step 5: "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Step 8, "Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all." Step 10: "Continued to take personal inventory and when we see wrong, promptly admitted it." This may not sound like good news, but it is.

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius there is a "daily examen" that requires soul searching honesty, humility and confession. The most famous prayer in the world, other than the Lord's prayer, is the one given to us by Orthodoxy, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Parker Palmer, the Quaker author, speaks of facing "our shadow side" and suggests that "the way to God is down." I have benefited from the practice of ending each day with the questions, "Where today did I experience the presence of God, and why?" and "Where today did I experience the absence of God, and why?" This may not sound like good news, but it is.

Some keep a journal or diary as a way of holding themselves accountable. Others regularly "pray the Psalms" because these verses are full of lament, confession and even tears. Still others engage in various liturgical practices (ashes, kneeling, vigils), silence and even fasting as ways to heighten awareness of sin so as to experience God's grace in greater measure. This may not sound like good news, but it is.

Richard Foster suggests the following prayer: "Precious Savior, why do I fear your scrutiny? Yours is an examen of love. Still, I am afraid...afraid of what may surface. Even so, I invite you to search me to the depths so that I may know myself-and you-in fuller measure. Amen" (Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, p. 35).

[Taken with permission. Visit the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship website.]