What comes to mind when you hear the word “repent?” I think of a guy yelling on the street corner or a fire and brimstone preacher. It is safe to say we tend to have a negative stereotype of people who tell us to repent which makes us have a negative view of repentance. This is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. These are major events within a large number of Christian communities. The idea of repentance is part of this season. Because it is not an idea we talk about often and there is a tendency to have a negative view of it, I thought it would be appropriate to pause and focus on it.
My definition. I see repenting or repentance as a two-step process. Step one is to stop doing something that is wrong. Step two is to start doing something that is right. What if the guy on the street corner was Martin Luther King? He called us to repent. He wanted us to stop segregation and start being a just society. We see this with those who promote environmental awareness. They call us to stop polluting and wasting resources and start recycling and conserving resources. I could list any number of causes and most likely you have a couple close to your heart such as human trafficking or AIDS. No matter what the issue is we see value in calling people to stop doing something harmful and start doing the right thing. Now the guy on the corner can add value. We need to be called to repentance. Sometimes we get it wrong and we need people who will call us out and make us change.
Of course if this was easy, we wouldn’t need to spend time talking about it. If you are like me, we have no problem pointing out other people’s shortcomings. We just “telling it like it is” or “shooting straight” with them. However, just let them try and do the same thing to us. This is a benefit of Ash Wednesday. It forces us to pause and reflect.
I see two paths people tend to take that miss the point of repentance. The first path is to blame something or someone else. “It is because of my past” or “If she hadn’t of done that” is our defense. Yes our past affects us and yes other people can influence us but at the end of the day we have to take personal responsibility for our actions especially if they hurt someone else. The second path is to tear ourselves down with no hope we can change. We create a negative image of ourselves and get stuck in a vicious downward spiral.
As a follower of Jesus, I look to him to get repentance right. One of his first messages was “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Here is the amazing thing. He doesn’t begin to list a whole bunch of things we have to do. Jesus has what I like to call a “byproduct mentality.” In other words, when my focus is right I naturally do the right things. In other words, my actions will be the byproduct of my heart. When a parent truly loves a child, the parent doesn’t have to be told to take care of their child. They naturally provide and do what is in the best interest of their child. They may need help or education. However, they want to learn and they accept the help because their focus is on the wellbeing of their child. You see the same thing in a healthy marriage. A husband wants to show love to his wife. If he hurts her he is sorry and repents. Repentance is easy because of the love he has for her.
This is why Jesus is so harsh with the religious leaders. They stopped focusing on their relationship with God and focused on all the things they had to do. They were actually hurting the people around them. Jesus’ call to repentance wasn’t for them to add more things on their “to do” list. He was inviting them to refocus on their relationship with God and care for the people around them. Jesus says everything hangs on the commandment to love God and love others. Both Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-33 are great snapshots of Jesus sharing this principle. This makes sense. When I focus on loving God and you, I naturally do what is good for the relationship.
Jesus’ call for repentance is an invitation to focus on our relationship with God and each other. The cross stands as a huge reminder Jesus was focused on our relationship. Let’s use this season to slow down. We need to look for where we have gotten out of step with loving God and each other. As we see those areas and as we reflect on the cross, may our response be to repent.