Prayers of Repentance



The preliminaries of coming to the Lord--or to our brothers and sisters--in a spirit of repentance is ordinarily not a very pleasant aspect of Christian life. Unlike the spectrum of more satisfying Christian pursuits and activities, it is not a happy time.

Coming together to praise the Lord in song, prayer and testimony and sharing with others what God and His Spirit are doing in our lives is fulfilling and uplifting. Witnessing to changes in our personal situations: the healing taking place and the answers to prayers that perhaps we had insufficient faith to believe possible; seeing the Lord transform people including ourselves--all are signs of spiritual growth that not only build the body of Christ. These are stirring events occurring at some of the highest levels of human experience.

Perceiving these results of adhering to Biblical values and absorbing the reality of the outpouring of God's love through us to those with whom we are in contact--and from others to us-are a convincing sign of God's presence.

Then emerge the moments of slippage, the anger and the hurt, the outbursts of intemperate language just when we thought we were bringing ourselves under control. We can't understand it. We are beset and temporarily laid low by the very forces we are trying to avoid.

The Adam side of our nature surges to momentary supremacy and sometimes lingers too long. Guilt creeps in and gnaws at our consciousness, more sensitive because God has gifted us with spiritual X-rays.
We become discontented in our lapses, uneasy, maybe morose, feeling unclean and aware that somehow we have to make amends. And not only with God but with brothers and sisters who we have wounded, the targets of our pride and darker impulses. We long to get back in the light but sometimes continue to nurse our grudges.

I John 9-10 declares:

"Anyone who claims to be in the light
"But hates his brother, is still in the dark.
"But anyone who loves his brother
"Is living in the light."

In the same book, John 4:20 goes on to say:

"If a man says, I love God, and hates his brother,
"He is a liar; for he that loves not his brother,
"Whom he has seen, how can he love God,
"Whom he has not seen."

Of course it is possible for us to patch things up a bit with others for convenience. It is harrowing to feign and force relationships with individuals we have wronged. So we might mutter a half-hearted apology without fully accepting that we were the guilty party. But our motives as Christians should rule out expediency.

We should pray for forgiveness and confess without hiding shadows in our hearts. Why? Because we have failed ourselves and God and because the Good News is replete with exhortations to repent and confess our violations of the code of our Christian walk.

Matthew 3: 1-2 tells how John the Baptizer trod through the barren hills of Judea, thundering: "Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand." In Matthew 3: 11 he declares: "I baptize you in water for repentance" clearing the way for the Messiah to baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Jesus confirmed the repentance theme, expressing it in direct teaching and parables. In Mark I: 14-15, He proclaimed: "The time has come and the Kingdom of God is close at Hand. Repent and believe the Good News." And in early verses of Luke 13, Jesus within three sentences repeated "unless you repent, you too will perish."

What are the mechanics of repentance? In the Catholic tradition it was examination of conscience, confession of sins, a pledge to try to sin no more and an act of contrition, followed by absolution and penance imposed by a priest.

In the old days and old ways, we were often back a week later, kneeling in the same darkened confessional, shaped something like a clothes closet, hoping the good father on the other side of the grill wouldn't match up our voice and face with last week's laundry list.

The faithful of some other denominations believe the sinner can be forgiven by going directly to God without a human mediator. Regardless of the procedure, it isn't truly repentance unless we are sincere. We also must be ready to pardon others.

In Matthew 6: 14-15, Jesus tells us the Father will forgive our faults if we forgive those of others, "but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive" yours.

A step-by-step approach for repentance can proceed along these lines:

--Honesty, the admission that there are things in our lives that are wrong and need changing.
--Humility, the willingness to change; the awareness that we need help.
--Renunciation, turning away from wrong-doing; making a decision not to repeat the sin.
--Final act of repentance, asking forgiveness for what we have done wrong.

Compassion and readiness to forgive others can be difficult when someone wounds us deeply. However, Christ tells us to turn the other cheek, extremely difficult at times. But didn't He also say, "all things are possible with God's help"?

Perhaps the primary example of forgiveness was the example of the Sinless Savior, dying on the cross to atone for our fallen natures. He look down on his executioners from His agony on the cross, and prayed, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."

Human nature makes it convenient to undergo a sort of reluctant repentance, a self-defense motivation springing from fear of winding up in hell's pool of fire after the judgement of a just God.

For example, proceeding through the Catholic school system I was considered generally well-behaved. Sad to say, it was probably due more to a personal Puritan ethic of fearful retribution should I wind up in hell than adhering to God's laws.

(One was also aware, of course, of the tough discipline invoked by the watchful Sisters of Saint Francis. Punishment could range from interminably writing promises to behave to a crack on the knuckles with a ruler wielded by a nun with a right arm worthy of the New York Yankees!)

Judgement does seem inevitable in the heavenly realm. New Testament scripture in particular, however, provides plenty of credence to a conception of a God exuding love and forgiveness.

Our lives tend to be extraordinarily hectic but there is spiritual advantage in devoting regular attention to help from the Lord to cope with our imperfections. For instance, taking time for a quick morning prayer for protection against the wiles of the enemy. Then, settling down at night we can review our actions in the hours between-sometimes referred to as an "examination of conscience"--to reflect on where we went wrong and turning to the Lord in repentance.

When His disciples asked Jesus how to pray, His recital of the Lord's Prayer included a key phrase, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." This inclusion, in what could be considered a perfect prayer since it emanated from the mouth of the Savior Himself, heralded the importance of mutual forgiveness.

Although regularly repeating "The Lord's Prayer" tends to lean toward a rote method, there is nothing to keep us from also articulating its sentiments in our own words as we would in appealing to or conversing with a friend. And the closest friend we could have is our Divine Savior and King of Heaven, Who willingly laid down his life for our salvation.

With His death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus was the Sacrificial Lamb and atoned for our sins with a divine love we cannot comprehend. However, repentance and confession are still essential.

1 John: 1:9 gives us confidence a compassionate God cares enough to continually draw us closer to Him, despite our transgressions: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and lead us to all righteousness."

Despite the defects that plague us as imperfect creatures, repentance and confession as Jesus decreed cleanses away the stigma of guilt from our souls and psyches and we are free to worship and give Him the praise He deserves. With faith prevailing and the free gift of grace, we can face life and the future with unbounded hope of spending eternity with the Triune God.