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
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
--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
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
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
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.