The Danger of Repentance

It is Ash Wednesday, a day celebrated for centuries by good catholics everywhere and also, increasingly, by the evangelical church in America. There are doubtless many recent articles highlighting the benefits of observing this day and the season of Lent. If you are not educated on this part of the church calendar feel free to do some light reading about it.

A major point of focus today, across the globe, will be the practice and idea of repentance. The two popular, but perhaps somewhat divergent, meanings assigned to the word “repentance”, can be summed up as follows.

  1. Repentance is the act of admitting that one has sinned against God in thought, deed or belief by breaking God’s law or commands, asking for God’s forgiveness and perhaps the forgiveness of others, and deciding to better act, think, or believe in line with the commands of God in scripture.
  2. Repentance is an intentional change in direction based on a new understanding of God and/or his direction and mission.

These overlap of course but they can also diverge drastically because the second de-couples itself from the Bible as an objective standard of morality. However, what I’m here to write about is a danger inherent in both of these activities. When one has been convinced that God is on a mission and that our actions, thoughts and beliefs can influence that mission, we may find ourselves under enormous pressure to find out how we ought to behave and likewise what we ought to abstain from in order to align ourselves with that mission. This can be a very powerful tool in human communities and calls to repentance are often the catalyst for massive changes in community direction, action, and values.

Let me offer an example. In the book of Ezra, chapter 9 & 10, the community is convinced by some Judean princes and the leader, Ezra that the men in the community were guilty of breaking God’s law by taking wives from other Canaanite communities. With the Babylonian captivity fresh in their minds, they believed that such a blatant act of disobedience, if tolerated, would lead to the removal of the favor that had allowed them to resettle in Jerusalem and again subject them to oppression by foreigners.

The community had a fresh sense of the importance of walking in the ways of God. Armed with an understanding that they were destined to walk fully into God’s mission, and that rededicating themselves to the law of Moses was the best way to do that, they took drastic action to remedy this error. We can read in chapter 10 that the men pledged to “put away” the foreign wives. Some with whom they had children. Now there’s a lot of debate as to whether they still supported those wives after “putting them away” or just put them out on the street, or even expelled them from the community. In any case, the sense is that these women and children got the short end of this deal. Their fault for not being born Israelite I guess…

All debate aside, it can’t really be denied that the motivation behind the action was a renewed effort to align the community with the mission of God by what was seen as strict adherence to the law of Moses as the conduit through which that mission would be accomplished. We can see this tradition carry forward into the first century when we read of the legal debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. I cannot help but think of Jesus prioritizing mercy over strict adherence in places like Matthew 9. Perhaps these passages from Ezra would have been upon Jesus’ mind as he discussed the law, particularly with his strong stance against divorce.

Whether it’s Ezra, the law of Moses, or even the teachings of Jesus being used, true believers are too often led away from softness of heart by religious edicts which would replace it with a stone like, impenetrable certainty of rightness and holy mission. I can say from experience that strict adherence to “God’s word” can often fight against our own conscience at times and lead us to destroy good things in this world. Things like relationships, family or otherwise, as we see in Ezra, and as I have experienced in my own life. I can’t help but wonder if some of those men who had grown to love their wives were resistant at first but finally convinced that the relationship must be sacrificed in order to live in obedience to God.

By all means seek repentance and ask God to reveal where you need a change of direction in this season. But for the good of the world and the benefit of God’s mission, seek mercy and love over sacrifice and religious codes.

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