Sometimes it shocks me how quickly time goes by: I feel like I was just recovering from Christmas, and yet I’m already thinking about Lent. (In part this is because I’m tired of winter and Lent usually signals the beginning of spring, but still…) To most people, Lent is the buildup to Easter, a season of giving up coffee, chocolate or some other vice, and a time filled with extra church services. Lent is an important season for the church: it’s a time to reflect on our relationship with God and the sacrificial work of Jesus. It’s a time for thinking about spiritual disciplines and our attitude towards God. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, during which Christians reflect on their own mortality. Ash Wednesday has also been a day to think about repentance. “Repentance” is a familiar word, but not very popular. For most people it suggests a sense of guilt and conjures images of street preachers holding signs saying “Repent, for the end is near.” Neither of these images is helpful for us: God doesn’t want us to wallow in guilt, and scare tactics suggest that repentance is something for people who feel like small children caught by their parents in the act of misbehaving. The idea of repentance comes from scripture, and it’s an important part of our relationship with God. It’s less about wallowing in guilt than it is about self-reflection and examination as we honestly assess what we have in our lives that separates us from God.
Repentance is “remorse or contrition for one’s past actions or sins.” There is an element of guilt: repentance means acknowledging our imperfections. Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But the biblical concept of repentance doesn’t end with recognizing sins and feeling guilty about them. The Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as “repentance” or “repent” carry a sense of turning around and walking in a different direction; the implication is that we’ve been walking away from God, and God calls us to turn back and walk towards him. The Old Testament reflects this sense that we as humans tend to wander off into ways of life that lead us away from God, and that God calls us back to himself. God sends Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of coming judgment. The king of Nineveh responds to Jonah’s preaching by saying, “‘Human beings and animals shall be covered in sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not parish’” (Jonah 3:8-9). God sees the Ninevites’ repentance, and he responds by not punishing them as he had planned to.
This is what God wants from us: he judges our sin, and he wants us to recognize our sin and change our ways. Centuries after Jonah went to Nineveh, John the Baptist announced Jesus’s coming with a similar message. Mark’s Gospel tells us that John drew huge crowds to the banks of the Jordan River, where he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Luke is even more explicit about John’s message: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance’” (Luke 3:7-8). This seems like a harsh message, but it’s a necessary prelude to Jesus’s appearance. We have to recognize our sinfulness, not so we can feel guilty, but so that we can see where and how our lives need to change to be conformed to God’s will. John the Baptist suggests that feeling sorry is only the beginning; our lives have to change. God wants us to show our faith in the way we treat each other. People come to John the Baptist asking him how they should change their lives, and John tells them, “‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’” (Luke 3:10). God wants us to see the ways in which we don’t honor him in our lives. Then, he wants us to repent and live in ways that demonstrate his love for each of us.
During the upcoming Lent season, I hope that we can take the time to reflect on ways that God may want us to change how we live. What are some areas in which we can love God and neighbor? What are the sins that we indulge in that we can resist? Who might we need to be reconciled with? Questions like these can lead us to penitence and deeper faith.
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