“If you do not repent, you will all perish.” This saying of Jesus can serve as a powerful test of the health of our spiritual lives as Christians. Do we hear these words of the Lord as a threat or as a loving plea? Do we react to this stark warning, with anger, with fear or with gratitude?
There are those who react to the commands of God expressed through the Church, and to the foretold consequences of disobedience to and rejection of God’s will, with a defensive sort of anger. Warnings of damnation can seem to them like acts of hatred or coercion, as unjust ways to enforce certain behaviors or certain social structures. It can seem to some souls as though God, or at least the Church, has already determined to find in them some sin as a pretext for exclusion from the good things of eternity. Such an anger, intertwined with fear, gives those souls their own pretext to exclude or dismiss God and his Church in their turn, choosing their own way of life, but now with the feeling of self-justification that comes from having been wronged.
There are others who do not see the warnings of God as a direct assault, but who still hear implied threat in those words, and who might despair at salvation when reminded how serious a matter it is. For these souls, their sins, whether great or small, are always present before them, even before being warned of sin’s consequences. Wherever they look in their own lives, they find fault. They may lose heart, and either give in to sin through discouraged lethargy, or turn to a sort of scrupulosity to ensure their own safety.
Neither reaction, that of anger or that of fear, comes from a true understanding of Christ’s warnings. The Lord does not desire mere conformity for conformity’s sake, he does not desire our damnation, and so long as we seek forgiveness in humility, even our sins are no obstacle to the power of his love. Christ even goes so far as to offer us a parable in order to explain the tenor of his warnings. He tells us of a gardener in charge of a fruitless tree. The gardener certainly does not hate the tree for its difficulties, nor is he powerless before them, but he is determined to provide particular and concerned care for the tree so long as there is time, with the loving hope that it can still become healthy and fully alive.
If we understand the truth of this parable, we should welcome the warnings of Christ our God with gratitude and joy. Jesus has loved us enough to point out what could happen if we do not turn away from sin. He has warned us precisely because we are precious to Him. He does not want to lose us, and he has the power to keep us from spiritual death, so long as we listen to him and entrust ourselves to his care. During this season of Lent, we have the opportunity to renounce and cast out any spirits of fear, anger, and despair that live in our souls, and with courage to offer our sins to the Lord for His mercy. This is true repentance: to trust in God’s power to save, and to set aside whatever keeps us from receiving his care. If we can do this, comforted by Christ’s gentleness and emboldened by his concern, then not only will we not perish, but we will walk the road to true life, and will thrive in heaven like nothing on Earth ever has.