Last Sunday I shared some very personal reflections on my own practice of repentance. (see: http://kengcrawford.com/2012/03/05/no-one-is-beyond-hope/ ) Repentance is not just about guilt over big sins. It is also our daily humility to realize that we are not all we are created and called to be, and to confess that to ourselves, God, and one another. We admit that we fell short (a literal definition of ‘sin’ is ‘to fall short’ or ‘to miss the mark’). We ask forgiveness and make amends where to do so would not cause greater harm. This is difficult. We feel stupid and embarrassed or worse when we have to admit that we aren’t perfect. I think one of the absolute best things I do to strengthen my marriage is return to Laura if I have been short tempered and say, “I’m sorry. That’s not who I want to be or how I want to treat you. What I meant to say was…” It’s not easy to do, but it gets easier each time. Like many things, repentance gets easier with practice. We’ll always need to do it, so we might as well get on with it.
You may have also heard me say, “I’m not mean or vindictive or hateful. I can be short sighted, distracted, or stupid. But if I do or say something that you experience as hurtful, it’s not motivated by a desire to hurt, but by one of those other things. That may not ease the sting, but hopefully it eases the reconciliation. And hopefully you’ll be willing to say, “I felt hurt/angered/etc. by what you said/did/failed-to-do.” I may not like to hear that at first, but I certainly do want to hear it.
The fact that others have seemingly chosen to ‘forgive and forget’ does not absolve us of the responsibility of confession, repentance and restoration. The fact is that God chooses to not hold our sins against us – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are not thereby freed from the need to confess and repent before God. Our sin, and our guilt and brokenness over it, is a barrier between ourselves and God. Remember how you felt when as a child you did something wrong but were afraid to come clean. The kinder and more loving others were, the more you hurt. The barrier was on your side, not theirs, and you were the one who had to act, had to apologize, in order to be freed to receive the love that they had for you. The same is true of our relationships with God and one another, and even with ourselves.
People often ask what is different about followers of Jesus. Part of what should be different is that we understand and practice grace and mercy in a particular way. Paul tells us, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us,” (Romans 5:8) and “Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we have also been given the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What God has given us – grace, mercy, forgiveness – we also are to give one another and the world. I am to love you while you are yet sinners. We are to love the world while they are yet sinners. We are to practice reconciliation, which starts with the offended, not with the offender. We don’t wait for others to apologize before we forgive, because God did not wait for us to repent before we were redeemed and forgiven (restored into relationship). This is not easy – perhaps not possible without God’s help through the Holy Spirit. It is not what our flesh wants to do, but it is what the Spirit asks of us.
Does this mean we put ourselves in situations knowing others will hurt us? Not necessarily. We are not called to remain victims in abusive or dangerous situations. We are called to seek reconciliation before writing others off and washing our hands of them. Staying in an abusive situation enables the sin of the abuser and is not an act of love, forgiveness, mercy or grace. Moreover, when we separate ourselves from that unhealthy situation we are better able to practice these virtues. The space gives us the freedom to love, and gives the other person freedom to move toward healing.
One reason we need Christian community is because this work is so difficult – we need to be reminded, encouraged, challenged, and helped to forgive and to repent. We proclaim a God who loves us enough to experience the incarnation and crucifixion. Do we practice that faith? What does our treatment of others say about what we really believe? That we are worthy of God’s forgiveness, but no one is worthy of ours? We pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4); we are asking God to make the forgiveness we receive conditional on and proportional to the forgiveness we give. How frightening is that for you?
We need to practice both forgiveness and repentance – they are two sides of the same coin. If we practice one without the other, we are really just trying to manipulate God and others. We are not acting honestly and we are not acting in love. If I consistently forgive others but never repent, then I am presuming an arrogant superiority – they need to be forgiven, but I don’t. If I am repentant but never forgiving, then again I am being arrogant – “I deserve to be forgiven, but no one else does”. Humility is needed for both repentance and forgiveness, which is perhaps why humility is so often called for. It may also be why repentance and forgiveness are so difficult for us. Again, Paul points us toward Jesus who leads the way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (2 Philippians 2:5-8) Notice here that humility is not a mask for self-loathing or self-negation. To “empty oneself” is to release self-importance, to literally “not be full of oneself.” Humility must not be mistaken for self-abnegation – it is rather the fullest affirmation of our true identity as God’s beloved children.
Micah 6:8 tells us that what God desires of us is that we do justice [together with God], embrace mercy [together with God], and walk humbly [together] with God. Justice and Mercy are the two hands of humility with which we practice God’s love in the world. Any notion of Justice that lacks Mercy is false, just as is any notion of Mercy that lacks some expression of Justice. Forgiveness is not contrary to God’s justice – it is the very nature of God’s justice.
We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love without passing through our own valley of repentance – which feels for many like a shadow of death. God’s whole creation calls out to us proclaiming God’s glory and our beauty, begging for us to let ourselves be loved, and to love all around us. Repentance is a vital step in that process. Without it we can’t be ready for the things to come – cannot be ready for the blessings that God has for us or the ways that God desires to work in and through us. God has dreams for us, but until we repent, we won’t be able to dream them, much less live them.