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.

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[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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Self-Discovery and the Journey to God: What the Wizard of Oz Teaches Us About Finding Our Way Home

During the summer months, the Cobb Theater in my hometown offers free movies in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a gift to families who are trying to find kid-friendly entertainment that doesn’t break the bank. Last week, I was able to get away for a couple of hours to see The Wizard of Oz with my children. The last time I really watched the movie was in elementary school, and I was struck by something I had never realized before. Dorothy and her three traveling companions actually possessed the things for which they were so desperately looking.

The scarecrow thought he need a brain, but turned out to be one of the smartest characters. The tin man thought he was missing a heart, but showed strong emotions, sometimes evidenced by tears. The lion thought he lacked courage, by like the others was able to face his fears, successfully make the journey to the Emerald City, and save Dorothy from the wicked witch in the process. This insight is confirmed at the end of the film when the wizard, instead of giving them the virtues they were seeking, gave them symbolic objects that functioned to confirm the qualities they already possessed. And of course Dorothy was trying to find the means to get back home, only to realize that the ruby slippers she wore the whole time was all she needed.

What seems clear to me is that this film is about self-discovery. It’s about leaving home, transgressing boundaries into unexplored territories, and returning home with an expanded consciousness. It is about our compulsion to look for wizards who can deliver us from danger and give us magical (i.e., quick and easy) solutions to complex problems so we don’t have to travel the long and painful road to maturity. It is about helping us realize that we have within us the things we so desperately look for in others, but also how evil can gain the upper hand by exploiting our insecurities and convincing us to believe lies about ourselves. It’s about realizing that everything we need to get home, everything we need for salvation, has already been accomplished and deposited in us as a gift. And it’s about the importance of discovering all of this for ourselves in the midst of life’s storms and the grief that comes with saying goodbye.

As I pondered these insights about the Wizard of Oz, I began to see parallels in the church’s teachings on the Holy Spirit and salvation, especially as interpreted by the contemplative and mystical traditions. The biggest temptation of fallen humanity is to look for salvation in other people or things of this world. By looking outside ourselves, we try to secure our own existence with created things, which inevitably leads us down the path to idolatry. We are particularly tempted to seek salvation in other people: a romantic partner, a therapist, a pastor, an inspirational author, or even a friend that we put on a pedestal as a spiritual giant. Anytime we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to “fix” us we get in trouble because the answers lie within.

I am not suggesting that we save ourselves—only God saves. But the Bible teaches that with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the triune God comes to live in us. (In addition to passages referencing the image of God in human beings, see Philippians 2:12, Colossians 1:27, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if God lives in us, then finding or drawing close to God points to the inward journey of the heart. As Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, we are “circumference people” who live at the edges of our existence, and the path to God is the movement from the edges to the center. The biblical metaphor for the center of our existence is “the heart.” The journey to God is also the journey of self-discovery. These two kinds of knowing happen together. 

Furthermore, if the very power and presence of God lives in us, then in a certain sense we lack nothing. Some of the most entrenched problems of human existence come from the idea of scarcity—the fear of not getting enough or being enough. We often assume that we are missing something really important for a life of joy and contentment. This compels us to search outside ourselves for what we think we lack, and this outward focus often leads to the comparison trap. We gaze upon the idealized persona of others generated by projections of a charmed life on social media and the material signs of success (wealth, good looks, and influence). Then we compare ourselves to this illusory ideal and find our fears confirmed by thoughts such as, “I wish I had it all like her,” or “I wish I had it all together like him.” The comparison trap intensifies our anxiety and sometimes leads to depression as we struggle with the entrenched suspicion that we are really not good enough and lack the solution.

But the Bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for abundant life and has deposited this treasures in our hearts through the sending his Holy Spirit who lives in us. Just like Dorothy wore the slippers that could take her home all along, so God has given us the means for divine, intimate communion. All we have to do is close our eyes and (instead of clicking our heels three times) call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). The way home is the path of prayer. That is what this message is all about. I hope it blesses you!

Phrases for Meditation: I am accepted. I lack nothing, The Spirit of God lives in me.