Saturday, April 5, 2008

Repentance isn't just (or even mainly) about Guilt

Someone recently asked a very good question about The Divine Liturgy and other Orthodox worship services. Why do we keep asking God so many times to wash away our sins, pardon our transgressions, visit and heal our infirmities, and so forth? Doesn’t the prayer “take” the first time? Doesn’t God forgive when we ask Him only once?

Well, yes, of course He does. But that isn’t the main point.

WHAT? You repent and the fact that God forgives your guilt isn’t the main point? That’s right. It's ever so much more than that! The point is mainly our broken human condition. The biblical (Greek) word for sin, amartia, means falling short (of the goal). Imperfection, in other words. Imperfection is obviously something we were born with; hence, it isn’t our fault. Yet it is, insofar as we acquiesce in it! Insofar as we are content to remain such pathetic creatures as we are, and do not struggle to overcome our inheritance, well, we are going to be stuck with it. Forever. And the indispensable way to press forward (one of them, at least) is to keep repenting! Meaning, keep struggling against our brokenness, keep renouncing it, keep striving to live above it and not in slavery to it. That is the main thing “repentance” involves. And if we observe ourselves closely enough, we discover that every moment we are not repenting, we are sliding backward toward the nothingness from which we came. And that is why we constantly utter prayers of repentance. They amount to prayers of aspiration. We are pleading for deliverance not only from guilt, but most of all, from bondage to our brokenness. We need to do that all the time, all our life long.

Patriarch Bartholomew, in his Lenten letter to the Church, puts it better than I could. Here’s most of what he wrote:

Now as Christians, we are used to both hearing about and practicing repentance, and we do not feel a conflict with our Church’s call to repentance. However, there is a need for us to make a deliberate and conscious effort to realize that a complete repentance has two objectives.

The first objective is threefold: a renunciation of our sins, a decision to cease and desist from sinful deeds and habits, and a decision to make amends for the consequences of our sins. For example, the publican Zacchaeus, who sincerely repented during his encounter with Christ, demonstrated his repentance in a practical way by repaying fourfold the very people from whom he had unjustly seized wealth.

The second objective of repentance is that we should change our mentality. We should replace our understandings with other higher and loftier ones; or in the words of the Psalmist: to “ascent in our hearts” (Psalm 83:6, Septuagint numbering). This second objective needs to be pursued especially by those who are unconvinced by their consciousness about specific sins. For example, our understanding of love surely falls short of perfection; likewise our understanding of humility. For when we compare our own spiritual state to the perfection of God, a perfection we are called to imitate, surely we will see our shortcomings and realize the endless road we must traverse in order to find ourselves in the path of those who are like unto God.

As we examine the quality of our inner peace, we ascertain that we fall short of the peace of Christ “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Pondering the level to which we trust our lives to God’s Providence, we sadly realize that we are often seized by anxiety and uncertainty about the future, as if we were either of little faith or even without faith. In general, upon examination of the purity of our conscience, we realize that we fall short of understanding correctly the many feelings we harbor within ourselves that are detrimental to our purity, often mistaking them as healthy. Thus, a new and more complete enlightenment of our conscience is needed through the teachings of the Fathers and of the Gospel, so that we will be in a better position to think critically about ourselves and our shortcomings, in line with the judgment of God. Since no one can claim to judge himself perfectly, by the same token no one can claim that he has no need of a renewed mind, a more enlightened mind, a transformation of mind, a correction of mind and mentality, i.e., a need of repentance.

The call of our Orthodox Church to repentance is not merely a call to self-reproach. Self-reproach can be useful, as are deep contrition and tears of repentance; but they are not of themselves sufficient. We need to experience the joy emanating from the forgiveness granted to us by God, the sense of deliverance from the burdens of the bondage of sin, and the sense of God’s love for us. Our repentance does not deprive us from the joy of life, making us indignant when we hear a sermon calling us to repentance. Repentance means cleansing and enlightenment of our minds, more ardent love for Christ and His creation, freedom and joy through the newness of life into which we continually enter through our constant repentance.

The one who constantly repents, ever progresses, ever rejoices through new ascents, finds constant satisfaction in deeper understandings of all things. Through the transformation of mentality and understanding, the one who repents better understands the whole world, becomes wiser, more judicious, more discreet, nobler and a true friend of Christ.

Part of loving Christ -- no matter how like Him we may have grown! -- is to grieve at how very UNlike Him we still are!