As this holy season of Lent begins, Jesus calls each of us to true repentance, repenting with our whole heart. It is, of course, important for us to understand as we seek to live up to His call, just what it is he means by repentance, as well as what He does not mean. Sometimes it can be easier to understand our goal by making clear what answers miss the mark.
Repentance is, first and foremost, not simply an act of guilt or self-hatred for our sins before God. While we should recall our sins as part of repentance, God is not asking us just to feel awful about the things that we’ve done and seek self-punishment or condemnation. Christ has already undergone the sacrifice that heals the wounds of sin once for all on the Cross, and does not need us to subject ourselves to grief in order to pay for our sins a second time. We do not repent in order to beat ourselves up for sin.
Repentance is also not a grand self-improvement project in the name of our holy Faith. We do not turn away from our sins and failings out of a mere desire to be better, to improve in personal discipline, to become the sort of person we would rather be, so that we can face ourselves and God with greater calm and self-confidence. While it is, of course, a good thing to grow in self-control and to build virtue on a natural level, no amount of personal perfection could ever gain for us the right to speak with God at all, much less as a friend, much less forever in heaven. We do not repent to make ourselves better by our own efforts.
These two forms of false or incomplete repentance miss the mark because they are focused on us, ourselves. Whether based on servile fear and self-condemnation, or on pride and a desire for self-confidence, both find root in the self. True repentance, on the other hand, is a response of love to God’s love for us. We repent because we understand that we have been loved, and we wish to love more and more in return. The word “repent” itself means to turn back, and so implies that we have someone to whom we are turning back. That someone is the God who created us, loved us enough to rescue us from ourselves, and who desires to bring us into His own inner life in heaven. We turn away from our sins so that we are free of obstacles in loving Him back. We take on disciplines so that we can more and more clearly see Him, and desire with greater fervor to be with Him. Everything that we do in the process of repentance comes from this desire to be close to the God whose love goes before us, at whatever cost.
Indeed, repentance, far from a purely painful or sacrificial process, is a moment of tremendous joy in the Christian life. The gift of holy tears that often accompanies deep repentance comes not only from sorrow over sin, but rather from the realization of how overwhelmingly we have been loved, in the midst of, and despite our sinfulness. This year, as we carry so much trouble and fear from the past months to the feet of our God, I hope we will see that in each of our trials as well, we have been loved totally, and never abandoned. While we may very well be moved to weep over our sins, we do so out of joy and hope. While we may fast and discipline our bodies and minds, we do so with love for Him who made and saved us. The purpose of all our repentance is not anything in us, in ourselves, but rather is Christ Jesus and the glory He offers in calling us out of dark-ness into His marvelous light.
With these things in mind, we can more easily and with greater fervor dedicate ourselves this Lent to the great work of repentance. If we open our souls in this way to the love of God, surely we will find whatever strengthening, encouragement, and healing we need in Christ who willingly suffers for us, and who out of love will rise to new, glorious, and unconquerable life.