One way of conceptualizing repentance is as a series of actions which, if performed with sincerity, lead to the divine response of forgiveness. We recognize that we have erred, fallen short, gone astray, and we go through a number of steps in an effort to make things right again—we confess our guilt, we do what we can to make restitution for our wrongs, we commit to doing better in the future. And once we have worked through these steps, we find that God is graciously willing to forgive, to take us back.
I think this model of repentance can be a helpful way of talking about what’s involved in the process, but I have to admit that it’s not my favorite approach. As a kid, I worried that I was sinning far too frequently to keep track of every sin and dutifully run it through the cycle, and I wondered what happened to sins that you never repented for because you’d forgotten about them. Looking at the model now, though, what really strikes me is that that God’s involvement seems limited to the end of the process. We take the initiative–we recognize that we’ve done wrong, and we do our best to make up for it and do better in the future. And it’s only then, if we’ve made it through the steps correctly, that God responds. In some versions of this approach, repentance almost seems to become a kind of work that we do in order to placate an offended God, even a sort of payment for our sins (which of course raises real questions about the role of the atonement).
In a similar fashion, I sometimes find myself thinking about repentance as if it were basically about about persuading a reluctant God to forgive me. But I suspect that at such times I have it backwards; repentance isn’t about the things I can do to change God, but rather the process of being in an ongoing relationship which changes me. When I look at those moments in my life when I’ve really felt like I wanted to move in a new direction, to do things differently, to be a better person, I find that somewhat paradoxically, what frequently inspires this desire is a sense of being accepted and valued as the person I am right now—not a sense that if I will only get my act together, I can finally become acceptable. To put it another way, I find myself wanting to repent not in an attempt to secure for myself grace, but in a response to grace—in response to God’s continually surprising willingness to be involved in my life even in all its messed-up-ness.
A couple of years ago I ran across an intriguing observation from an Orthodox thinker by the name of Olivier Clement. He writes, “The awareness of being loved and the response that it unlocks are the only criterion of repentance.”1. That gets at something in my experience of the process. I don’t think it means that repentance is just about warm fuzzy feelings. I actually think that the experience of being loved can be profoundly unsettling, even somewhat terrifying. (Along these lines, some suggest that the “flames of hell” simply represent the love of God as experienced by those in a state of rejecting God.) Perhaps this is precisely because it has such potential to be transformative; you cannot experience God’s love without being changed by it.
It takes grace, I’ve been reminded recently, to even recognize sin. And it’s inherently problematic to view sin in isolation, apart from the redeeming work of Christ. I find that reassuring; it reminds me that when I notice sin in my own life, the very fact that I can identify it as wrong points to something else, to the possibility of something better. And it suggests to me that when I fall into despair or hopelessness over the things I do wrong again and again, the seemingly irreparable mistakes, the bad choices I’ve made, that isn’t quite the same thing as “recognizing sin” – because a genuine recognition of sin requires an accompanying recognition of grace.
Repentance, then, might be better framed not as a process initiated by human beings, one in which God only shows up at the end after we’ve gone through the requisite steps, but rather as a human response to a relationship initiated by God. I find this model resonant with scriptural images of a God who actively pursues us–one who stands at the door and knocks, leaves the ninety-and-nine to seek the one lost sheep, and attempts to gather us like a mother hen. Christ does not wait to find out if we will turn back and try to mend things, if we will in fact repent, before getting involved. He dies for us for us “while we were yet sinners.”2