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.
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.
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.)