Have We Forgotten How to Repent?
by Robert Bugbee
Picture a congregation experiencing discord because of deep-seated opposing opinions. Which is more likely these days: That parties to the controversy would stand up and say, “I was wrong. I should never have done that. I had no right to speak like that. I repent of my sin, and I ask your forgiveness”… or that people will dig in their heels, point only at someone else’s wrongs, prepare for a show-down, or simply walk away, and let broken relationships remain broken for good? It strikes me that we’ve reached the point where almost anything seems more likely than frank repentance.
The same can happen in Christian marriages and family life, which is getting attention elsewhere in this issue of our magazine. How often does a husband or wife say straight up to a spouse, “I have been harsh and selfish toward you in this area or that; I repent of my wrong; please forgive me”? Does it happen much that parents repent without compromise to teenage children, or teenage children to fathers and mothers? Hasn’t it become much more usual to make excuses for conduct that grieves God and hurts other people, or to just let blow-ups go ahead and do their damage? Isn’t it too common that we decide to live with some sort of avoidance where concerns are suppressed and resentment digs in like a splinter, or let relationships appear healthy on the surface to the outside world, while we know those relationships have gone hollow?
It strikes me that we’ve reached the point where almost anything seems more likely than frank repentance. Hasn’t it become much more usual to make excuses for conduct that grieves God and hurts other people, or to just let blow-ups go ahead and do their damage?
It should not surprise us if stories of winners and losers, of broken relationships that never heal, or fake appearances of “getting along” are typical in a world that doesn’t know Christ. That’s painful enough to watch. It is a greater sorrow when such things become characteristic—and almost expected—among those who confess Jesus as their Saviour. Have we forgotten how to repent?
You and I always stand in danger of forgetting. We hear preachers like John the Baptist and even Jesus Himself call out from the pages of Scripture, “Repent!” (Matthew 3:3; 4:17). We understand that repentance is an urgent thing from the Lord’s point of view. But the evil one waits for us at just this crossroads. He talks you and me into the notion that general expressions of regret, like “I know I’m not perfect” or “We all make mistakes” can substitute for crisp, specific repenting.
There has been a feeling among evangelicals in recent years that the generalities are simply not working. I was reading about an effort to help men, for example, overcome addiction to internet pornography and other habits that weaken marriages. It wasn’t enough, the authors made clear, to simply feel general regret about such things. They advised finding an “accountability partner” or an “accountability group”— in other words, trusted, flesh-and-blood people to whom one names one’s sins quite specifically. A man struggling with these weaknesses understood that the “accountability partner” would ask again about this particular matter in a later conversation, so that concrete weaknesses get named, renounced, and wrestled with in a targeted way.
Lutheran Christians had this sort of accountability long before it became trendy. It’s in the Small Catechism under the section on “Confession” (that’s page 326 in the Lutheran Service Book). There Christian men and women are encouraged to name before their pastor—confidentially—the sins that keep burdening their consciences and causing them to stumble. This can be liberating, because the pastor can now include your struggles in his own prayers. He can ask about those inner battles the next time you, God’s dear child, come to confess. That real, flesh-and-blood shepherd, standing beside you in your struggle with sin, can make it very concrete that it’s really Jesus standing beside you in that struggle. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” He says (Hebrews 13:5).
The relief in all this goes far beyond just facing specific sins, which can be painful. The deepest joy comes when my pastor, with all the authority of Jesus Himself, absolves and sets me free with the Lord’s own pardon (John 20:21-23). Knowing that Christ still wants me is a potent force I can use in the struggle to face past wrongs honestly and begin to overcome them in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. That power never stays bottled up inside one’s own heart and thoughts. It always spills over into relationships with others in a healing way very needed right now in Christian homes, marriages, and church families.
Knowing that Christ still wants me is a potent force I can use in the struggle to face past wrongs honestly and begin to overcome them in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Have we forgotten how to repent? It’s an urgent question for you to ask. As you use these Lenten days for frequent worship to focus on the love that sent Jesus to the cross for your sake, the Lord stands ready to teach you—in this vital area—how to find your way back.
Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee is President of Lutheran Church–Canada.