As we begin the season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, I share some thoughts on repentance from Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn't really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.
This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren't enough.
We don't feel like we're rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you're automatically sinless.
A second popular myth is this: We're nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn't it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we're nice when we're comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.
Finally, there's the ever-popular conviction that we're still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn't judge one person against another, he doesn't grade on the curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we're really, truly sinners, because we see people so much worse than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we're just so gosh-darn nice.
The problem in all these cases is that we're comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly. And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.
Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.