Suffering, Confession, & Repentance

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  (Mark 1:1-5)

 

A Call to Repentance

The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?

Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]

As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.

These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.

 

Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness

In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.

However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.

This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.

These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.

Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.

 

Understanding Confession and Repentance

But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.

In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.

It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.

 

Challenge

True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.

How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.

___________________________________

[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.

 

(This post is the tenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

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Preparing for Stormy Seas: The Necessity and Gift of Suffering

Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome

On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.

Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.

It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.

 

The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.

As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii]  Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.

 

Good News in Suffering

Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.

Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.

An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering.  We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.

Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.

Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?

Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.

It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.

But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.

Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.

When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.

This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.

 

Challenge

But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.

 

(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.

[ii] Ibid., “Crossing Mark’s Stormy Sea.”

[iii] Ibid. 128.

[iv] See Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”