Following Jesus is all about transformation. After all, Paul says that the only thing that matters is becoming a new creation (Galatians 6:15). So, how does it happen? How, exactly, are we transformed? This is the question at the center of spiritual life. And since everything is spiritual, it’s the question at the heart of…well, everything.
Jesus makes is clear that transformation always begins with confession and repentance. “Repent and believe” is his first invitation (Mark 1:15).
Unfortunately, because words are malleable and easily tainted, these two words can feel like somber, churchy words. Images of self-flagellating monks may come to mind; or of crazies standing on 5th Avenue with “Turn or Burn” signs. “Repentance” has often been co-opted by those pedaling the message “repent or perish!” rather than Jesus’ invitation to “repent and believe.”
Furthermore, we often have assumptions about what confession and repentance is and, namely, that it’s about listing all the things done wrong or identifying all the weak parts of our hearts.
Recently I was on a long walk, trying to clear my head, feeling exhausted. The landscape around me was all gorgeous trees and flowers, but I was all misery. I was whipping myself—in my own mind, anyway--for all the things that are still so incomplete within me. Why do I care so much what people think about me? Why am I so desperate to be understood and affirmed? Why am I so committed to comfort rather than risk? Why can’t I stop? How do I change myself?! I was frustrated that I could not find the “transformation switch.”
Clearly my notion of confession and repentance often involves a heavy dose of beating myself up for my weaknesses, as if being hard on myself can make me a new creation. But what if transformation is not about overcoming weaknesses? What if grace is not “another chance to get it right?”
Try this thought on, even if you don’t believe it: you don’t come to Jesus through your strengths, you come through your weaknesses. You don’t come to God through your competence, but through humility.
This is the step that mere religion can never get. In a world committed to looking strong and competent, religion—even and sometimes especially Christianity—drifts into performance, with the belief that if we do well enough, we’ll be transformed. But what we all discover is that no matter how much we mature, we never arrive. There are always parts of our heart that remain beyond our grasp, which no ritual can cleanse. Religion, in fact, is often just the ego’s game of trying to become acceptable on our own terms without having to be dependent on another, or in this case, The Other. Our ego—the part of us that wants to look and feel good and never appear vulnerable--always wants to pay its own way and never wants to have to be dependent on any one else, even God! If we follow the ego, religion will just be about trying to manage our sin and do better, and confession and repentance will be reduced to a merely ritualistic mechanism.
Only when we come to not only profess but also believe Jesus will we discover that Jesus is not interested in our competence, he’s interested in communion and in receiving us in our weakness. The invitation to follow Jesus is a radical call to humility.
A Prayer for Grounding in Confession and Repentance
Jesus, I am weak, and I rejoice in my weakness, that I may be found in the grace poured on the poor and powerless. Forgive me for trying to hide the parts of my heart I deem unacceptable. I confess that as much as I try, I’m never going to get everything right. I repent—I turn—from all the ways I’ve tried to be sufficient on my own, and I marvel at the reality that you adopt me and accept me, even when I’m so unsorted. How can you be so good? Please teach me, by your Spirit, to trust you fully.
Through Christ my Lord, Amen.