I have been thinking lately about repentance.
It has surprised me considerably that during this last year’s seemingly endless stream of new horrors, there have been few calls – to my knowledge – for us all to repent to save ourselves from divine wrath, even from those of various faiths who believe in such a thing. Invitations to national prayer, calls for a change in what we view as “normal” behaviour, we-told-you-so squeals from Remainers, yes; but “Repent, ye sinners,” no.
Maybe this is just my personal social media echo chamber, and you have a different experience?
But anyway, I’m not sorry that I haven’t heard these calls. I don’t think they would be helpful, proceeding as they probably would from self-appointed purveyors of highly politicised attitudes to the crises we’re in.
But repentance itself is a good thing, an essential part of the Christian message. According to Mark’s gospel (chapter 1 verse 15), the basic message that Jesus started preaching was: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Repentance is not the same as apologising, although they are connected. Our society likes to demand apologies. Saying “sorry” can be done on behalf of someone else, usually someone dead; it may not lead to action; it may not be sincere. It often appears to be an attempt to get out of trouble when caught.
Repentance is not the same as change, although they are connected. People change all the time, over time, but changing even from a drug dealer to a priest does not necessarily mean repentance if it doesn’t involve admission that the former state was not just past, but morally wrong.
Repentance is not the same as making a U-turn, although they are connected. Our society is unfairly apt to complain every time a politician or government changes a policy or decision. Sometimes this is the courageous and right thing to do, and sometimes this is genuinely because of new facts. But a U-turn is not repentance if, again, it doesn’t involve admitting that we got it wrong before.
In the past preachers called on people, individually or collectively, to repent. Such calls now have a bad name, because they’re seen, and often rightly seen, as an oppressive power-play – a way of keeping the laity, especially the poor laity, in their place, of telling them they’re always wrong and shouldn’t think for themselves.
Many people struggle with a continual feeling of worthlessness. These days churches tell people that God loves them now, not just if/when; and this is surely good. But the history of centuries of arrogance and dictatorial behaviour from “the church” as an organisation (or set of organisations) and from many church leaders individually, is a barrier to people hearing about this love, and therefore to evangelism.
Christians in Britain perhaps haven’t yet earned the right to be taken as seriously as we’d like to be, because people remember – and indeed are frequently reminded – of the history of Christians and Christian leaders conniving in cruelty to children, free-thinkers, non-white people, unmarried mothers, and the poor generally.
But there must also be a place for calling out arrogance – your arrogance and mine, the arrogance of our society and of the human race. This is a frequent theme in the prophets. When God uses other nations to punish Judah, the other nations shouldn’t get too cocky. There is a marvellous picture in Isaiah chapter 10: “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride. For he says: ‘By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures… as men gather eggs that have been forsaken so I have gathered all the earth, and there was none that moved a wing, or opened the mouth, or chirped.’”
How the king of Assyria is supposed to know that it’s not “all his own work” I’m not sure, but this might be said also to many powerful leaders of our own day.
Taking time to notice the wrong things we say, do and think; and to turn away from them, is useful. If we remember constantly, and regularly admit to ourselves and to God that we can be, and often are, wrong, it is easier to admit this to other people. And it’s essential to be able to admit it to other people. It’s essential to make it easy for people to say, “I voted for X: what was I thinking?” rather than thinking their self-respect requires them to say, “I voted for X, but he/it hasn’t turned out they way I expected. I’ve been betrayed.”
We are all sinners; we all need to repent of things great and small; and New Year is as good a time as any to do it.
Love from the PPI Blogger
And Happy New Year to all my readers! As you will see, I’m still trying to keep off the subject of coronavirus in this blog as much as possible…