A View from the Pew: Doing ‘Sorry’

Whether or not you have ashes dabbed on your forehead this Wednesday, the season of Lent presents an opportunity to do more than say “I’m sorry.” The season of Lent is a chance to engage in active repentance.

Mardi Gras Statues, Tulane Public Relations (Wikimedia Commons, AlbertHerring)

Mardi Gras Statues, Tulane Public Relations (Wikimedia Commons, AlbertHerring)

The problem for many of us is that our ability to rationalize away our responsibility for our hurtful, harmful, and morally wrong actions is greater than our capacity for penitence. We are the products – and the creators – of a culture that loves Fat Tuesday but doesn’t resonate with Ash Wednesday. We know how to feast. We don’t know how to fast.

If we even give our sins a second thought, repentance is not a part of the equation. We may feel bad for a moment, but we can’t bring ourselves to stop engaging in the behavior for which we seek forgiveness. We avoid guilt. We have no shame. We run from anything that brings us down.

The irony is that the Scriptures are replete with references about the need for confession and repentance. This is precisely what Lent is supposed to be about. This is a season of fasting and preparation for the commemoration of the crucifixion and burial and celebration of the resurrection of our professed savior. In fact, if we follow the Christian calendar, we’re supposed to do this for 40 days. I can’t remember the last time I gave this practice more than 40 seconds of thought, much less the better part of my spiritual disciplines for 40 days.

If you’re a regular reader of “View from the Pew” you know I like a good list. So here’s my Lenten List: five ways to demonstrate genuine penitence.

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1.) Get ugly early. When I was a reporter covering the military, a public affairs officer who was truly a credit to his profession once told me that when the news is bad, it’s always best to “get ugly early” with the media and move on. The same is true for repentance. If you’re sincere, it’s important to start by tackling the uncomfortable task of reflecting on what you have done. Whether or not you journal, I suggest writing down a list. Start this season of preparation by getting all the ugly out early. It will be awful. It will not feel good. It will not make you feel good about yourself. It will, in fact, make you feel bad about yourself. It will give you a proper perspective and allow you to be truly penitent.

2.) Don’t just say “sorry,” do “sorry.” Seeking the forgiveness of another person requires work. So does seeking forgiveness from God. Yes, I know of God’s unconditional love, but to truly follow God’s call on our lives, we have to renounce our way of doing things. We have to change our actions, habits, and impulses. And if change is too much to ask in 40 days, we have to consciously work on making different choices. “Doing” is worth more than “saying.”

3.) Ask questions. By examining why you made those bad choices, you can understand your state of mind and identify your wrong thinking that led to them. Or, if the problem is a lack of thinking, then you can train yourself to pause before going down those roads. Cry out as Job did in chapter 13, verse 23: “How many are my offenses and sins? Inform me about my rebellions and sins.” It will deepen your relationship with God and others to ask how and why you have transgressed against them.

4.) Listen for answers. In day-to-day conversation we don’t typically think about what we’re being told. Rather, we are thinking about what to say next. If you sincerely ask difficult questions, it’s fruitless unless you wait or listen for answers. It may take the full 40 days of Lent. It may take a lifetime. But unless you give room in your life for God to speak in all the forms that takes, you will miss out on the wisdom you seek.

5.) Forgive yourself and forget. You know that list you created during the “Get ugly early” step? Burn it. Wad it up and destroy it. Forever. No more wallowing in self-pity. No more beating yourself up. The act of permanently destroying your offenses is a symbolic act representing the forgiveness of God. It’s the beauty of this awful discipline. Once we truly repent and put away the actions that separate us from God, there is no record of our sins. We are free to live in peace and joy, unburdened by ourselves and our human frailty. Then and only then can we truly appreciate Christ’s sacrifice and miraculous resurrection. Then and only then can we effectively continue his mission of reconciliation.

The party is over. It’s time to get down to business. There is no limit to what God can do in your life and through your life if you’ll do more than say “I’m sorry.”

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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