We know that indulging in some bad things, can make us feel good. Yet, how is it that doing some good things, can make us feel bad? This question arises because we live in a culture where we often measure the goodness of something by whether or not it makes us feel good. This is why repentance is paradoxical. It is a good thing. But, it can make us feel bad, even if we feel better afterwards. Well, how can something that makes you feel bad, be good for you?
For who wants to repent? Because repentance and reluctance often go together. Repentance means acknowledging, and then acting on, something we wish wasn’t true about us, or of our actions. Self-criticism is implicit in repentance. Though it can lead to self-improvement, repentance often has a cost we don’t want to pay. As a result, acknowledging fault is not pleasant. And, it can diminish our self-image, even if it later strengthens our self-respect.
There are three steps to repentance: first, recognizing our fault; second, acknowledging our failure; and, third, turning away from our bad attitude or behavior. Repentance is therefore more than admitting a mistake. Even if it is difficult, admitting mistakes is not as serious as taking responsibility for sin. What distinguishes sin is how we damage relationships. For, through sin, we hurt our fellowship with God, and we hurt our relationships with each other. This is why repentance is so challenging. Even if admitting mistakes is unpleasant, doing so is a lot easier than admitting I have harmed my relationship with God and with other people.
With his parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus in Luke not only commends repentance; he also tells us why. Even if repentance causes us to feel bad, Jesus points to its goal. He tells us that genuine repentance brings joy ~ joy to the angels. It’s another way of saying that our repentance brings joy to God. I like to think this is the infectious joy of heaven. Except that, we seem to be so well ‘inoculated’ against it! So, why isn’t the joy of heaven more infectious in our experience?
I think the answer follows from a second aspect of sin. Sin is not only an act ~ something we have done, or might do. Sin is also a condition ~ the condition that disposes us to do wrong things. This condition is reflected in wrong acts; and this condition causes self-deception, especially about the wrongness of what we have done. Sin therefore limits our readiness to bring joy to God. We know this. And yet, we’re not readily inclined to do something about it, nor do we have much confidence that we can.
Repentance is the antidote to the poisoning effect of sin. Therefore, it needs to be part of our spiritual health care, in a regular way, and not just once a year like a flu shot. Repentance as a spiritual practice needs to be an ongoing feature of how we live. Practice may make ‘perfect’ when it comes to art or sports, but not in ethics and spirituality. Yet, spiritual practice does build proficiency, and it does shape character. Repentance is therefore an important feature of healthy spiritual practice. Through repentance, we bring joy to heaven, and peace to our souls.
The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Lost Drachma. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.