Thursday, July 3, 2008

Terrors of Conscience

When I was growing up, the most terrifying thing that could happen was for my father to say, at breakfast, “When you get home from school today, you will go straight to your room and wait for me there.”

It ruined the whole day. You had this knot in your stomach whenever you thought about it, which was about a hundred times a minute. You knew what was coming. He would sit down on your bed, heave a deep sigh, and say, “I’m so disappointed.” It was as if your whole world were caving in.

But that was only the beginning. It would shortly be followed by the dreaded Why Question: Why did you [or didn’t you] do that? What could you say? Because I wanted to? Because I was stupid? irresponsible? lazy? There was no good answer. You just shrugged and looked into your lap and said, “I don’t know…” and that would only provoke the Next Dread Question: “Where have I gone wrong as a father?” or “What can I do differently, so this never happens again?” or “How can I help you so you’ll start doing what you’re supposed to do from now on?” And of course, the answer to the What and the How was always the same as the answer to the Why: “I don’t know.”

Then would follow a statement of his expectations, too obviously right, reasonable, and necessary for dispute, plus some admonitions. You’d say you were sorry and promise to do better and then he would leave your room. And you’d sit there gulping, blinking back the tears, and would resolve – well, to do better, to do at least the minimum needed to satisfy his requirements. You were genuinely sorry you had hurt him. You’d make a special point to get your homework done from now on so he and your conscience wouldn’t be hurt - although there was no way were you going to aspire to an “A” in chemistry. Henceforth, you’d mop the floor and fulfill that duty; yes definitely! For sure. (It wouldn't be your problem if it didn't necessarily come clean.) You'd say that cuss word under yout breath next time. With such compromises, you’d make some sort of peace with yourself.

You’d repent with your mind, in other words, cognitively. But not with your heart. To repent from the heart means to give up the evil desire, to strive for the "A" instead of just doing your homework, to desire a spic-and-span floor instead of just being able to say you mopped it, to purge unkindly attitudes toward a person, not settling for swearing at him silently. To repent from the heart means to take your stand against not only the evil deed but also the evil desire, to declare all-out war upon it. True repentance is not merely to cease and desist from what you had done, not even to hate and loathe it, but to take up arms against it. True repentance isn’t just putting forth some reasonable effort, but putting your whole self into the effort; it’s whole-heartedly changing course.

And true repentance isn't being ashamed, either. The time to be ashamed is while we are committing the sin, not when we are renouncing it.

True repentance is difficult. People will do almost anything to avoid it, even construct whole theologies that make it unnecessary. True repentance probably cannot be accomplished without tears. It certainly cannot be accomplished without Grace, but neither does God ever withhold the Grace necessary to do it.

True repentance is still difficult, but exponentially easier, if you understand that God is always good to you, always kind, infinitely loving, compassionate, never hateful or retaliatory. His disposition toward you never varies; He is constant, true, faithful, gracious. It is impossible to repent without loving God. It is extremely hard to love God as He is too often portrayed in heterodox teaching.

But when we do repent from the heart, reciprocating God’s love to us (not meaning that ours can compare with His), then as surely as day follows night, comes peace, deep peace. Our hearts tell us all is well, because the Holy Spirit is informing our hearts of it. God’s forgiveness overwhelms our sorrow. The gates of Paradise open to us.

Just apologizing to God won’t do it. Just trusting He will forgive and save won’t do it. Just theologizing about our status before Him won’t do it. Just repenting in our minds won’t do it. All of these together will still not do it. If we employ these methods we shall find our “peace” is only intellectual; we shall have to keep theologizing (“clinging to the promises”) to maintain such peace. Our hearts, not participating, won’t be fooled even if our minds are, and conscience will still always try to goad us. We will be told not to “go by our feelings,” so we will try to disregard our heart, to our peril.

But true repentance, with love for God and unreserved change of heart and mind, definitely, absolutely, categorically, unfailingly does provide complete relief from the shame and terrors of the conscience. And it does so with rapid, deep, overwhelming, wordless joy to our broken heart, and peace beyond comprehension.

Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life!



Just Mairs said...

Good I'll go chew on it for a while and hopefully take it completely to heart...