I heard on a radio podcast this week that only humans cook their food, and that this efficiency is the reason for our brain size; the researcher claimed that cooking is probably the only activity completely unique to humans. Perhaps this explains our addiction to cooking programmes on TV, but the claim stuck in my mind, because the next day I read in a Lenten study by David Winter that repentance is unique to human beings.
Winter says, in relation to Ash Wednesday, that to repent is do a turnaround. To a Christian this means accepting that our view of matter is wrong and that God’s view is right, that God was in fact right all along. There may be guilt (or not), there may be punishment (or not) but there surely needs to be humility. So repenting is something only humans can do. It’s the only way, Winter says, to "get out of the moral cul-de- sac of self-justification" into the wholeness God intends. He tells a story of being unfair to a work colleague. His conscience bothers him but he answers it with promotion of himself as a normally-kind individual and denigration of the colleague as needing a kick start. Repentance, he says, "helps me get out of this pointless dialogue and agree with God that what I did was wrong". This truly human act is the key to blessing: forgiveness, acceptance, inclusion and kingdom inheritance.
Adele Calhoun's Spiritual Practices book has a chapter on Confession and Self Examination. She says confession may be good for the soul, but it comes hard, because we’d like to think we don’t need it. We are, we think, good moral people; we haven’t murdered anyone or robbed a bank. Even when we do stuff up, we like to think we can fix it. We can put a great deal of energy into maintaining the image that we are good moral people. But this very perception can get in the way of the intimacy with God that comes from confession.
The Bible has many words for sin, but the most common, hamartia, means missing the mark, wandering off the road. The New Testament uses it is a more active way, to include choosing the wrong way. It tells us that we all sin, and that the result of sin is broken relationships. Jesus knew that, and experienced the effects of it. He was put to death by it. But, says Calhoun, he showed that it was not the last word. Sin can be confessed. Sin can be forgiven. And sinful people can be set free.
Stephen Neill was an English missionary and a bishop in South India. He too writes helpfully about repentance in a book of Lenten Studies. He draws a parallel between St Paul and the Roman poet Ovid who wrote "I see and approve the better but I choose the worse". We can compare this with Romans 7 where Paul says "I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t." The inner conflict, says Neill, is worse when we become a follower of Christ. We understand even more clearly the lamentable gap between what we are and what we ought to be. Human beings, he suggests, find ways to deal with the inner tension:
1. Religiosity, which is intended to put God in a good mood, and get him on our side. But the underlying motive is really ‘My will be done’.
2. Legalism, where we keep rules in order to make ourselves feel righteous – look at me, I can tick the boxes!
3. Explaining sin away as sickness, where there is no real guilt. (That's good in a way, as many are bowed down by false guilt, and some do have neurological dimensions to their behaviour. But guilt has a reality too).
None of these strategies deal to the deep truth that we are naturally self-centred. To the fact that we will not begin to be Christians until the God we have dethroned is enthroned again. To the need to begin a journey of surrender, of praying like Jesus, ‘Thy will be done.’ William Temple put it this way: "A man’s (sic) business is to surrender as much of himself as he knows to as much of God that he knows."
That means, says Calhoun, "opening up the bad in our lives to God. We invite Christ to come right in and look at our sin with us. There’s no hiding or false guilt and recrimination. No carting out all our spiritual practices. We tell it like it is—without rationalisation, denial or blame—to the only person in the universe who will unconditionally love us when we are bad. We hand over the pretense, image management, manipulation, control and self-obsession. We even give up on our self-help activities, intent on fixing our sin. We turn to Jesus and seek forgiveness. When we confess how we have missed the mark of God's love and truth, we open ourselves up to the mending work of the cross. Jesus' wounds hold true life-changing power." (Calhoun, A Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, 2005, p 92)
This is what the gift of confession can open up. Buechner calls it a bridge: "Confession of sins is not to tell God anything God doesn't already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate Bridge." (Beyond Words, p 61)
William Temple again:
It’s no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that.
Shakespeare could do it; I can’t.
And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.
Jesus could do it; I can’t.
But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me,
then I could write plays like his.
And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me,
then I could live a life like his.
This is the glorious meaning of new creation, something only humans can experience; the old is gone, the new has come. (2 Cor 5: 17)
To Chew Over: Here are two of Calhoun's ideas for confession and self-examination that we used on Ash Wednesday:
- Ask God to help you see yourself as he sees you. Remember he sees you absolutely and with love.
- Using the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer as a guide, journal your sins.
- When you have finished, go through each section one at a time, asking God to forgive you and help you to change.
- Then burn your list in a symbolic act of what it means to have God remove your sins from you.
Set aside some time for confession and self-examination.
- In the presence of God ask for light to pierce your defenses.
- Then ask yourself, Who have I injured recently through thoughtlessness, neglect, anger and so on?
- As the Holy Spirit brings people to mind, confess your feelings about these people to God. Ask God to forgive you and if need be to give you grace to forgive them.
- Write an apology, make a phone call or confess out loud in an attempt to put the relationship back on track.
Prayer: Lord show me if I need to repent of anything – and help me not to argue!