Only a few weeks ago, I witnessed first-hand something of the power of repentance.
There was a young man who could not handle the responsibility of bringing up the son he had unintentionally sired. So set was he on living a carefree life of drink, drugs and parties that he cut himself off from the mother and denied outright that the baby was his, despite the obvious resemblance - for fifteen years. That fifteenth year was the year his son died. He was stabbed to death, in some connection with gang crime. That was what it took for the man to realise what it means to be a father. Hew knew for the first time, in what he saw as the fatal consequence of his irresponsibility, the full weight of his sin. It pushed him to the verge of madness, and in his grief he prayed to God for forgiveness. “Repentance” in the Bible means a change of heart, and that is what happened to this man. He turned from his dissolute lifestyle to Christ, and now spends his life visiting gaols, borstals, schools and youth clubs trying to alert young men to the consequences of involvement in gangs.
This young man was just one of the speakers at a service for families affected by gang and knife crime held here last month.
It’s easy to write testimony like this off when you’re thinking about it from a distance, sitting behind a computer screen, say. The online sceptic might say that it’s all rather convenient for people who have seriously let other people down to turn and “be saved.” But you would have needed a heart of stone not to be moved that night, when that man spoke in person. The atheist Twitterati say we need to throw away the faith and lead lives based purely on science and analytical philosophy, but I have yet to see someone’s entire life turn around because they read a bit of Locke or Hume. The evidence for people’s lives changed by grace through turning in repentance to Christ, on the other hand, is all around us.
Repentance is for sinners, and the greater the sin, the more powerful the repentance. Our Lord said that he came not for the well, but for the sick. It is not just Christians who know this basic truth, either. The Buddhist monk Shinran wrote that if the good man should be saved, how much more the evil man.
Where we tend to fall short in the modern world, though, is that we are far readier to see other people’s sins than our own. The example I have given of the young man who abandoned his family is obvious. But Lent is not about other people’s sins. As Jesus said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Let me be blunt: if you believe, as most of the world seems to, that nothing at all is your fault, that you have no sin in you, then you are living a lie, will never know the joy of repentance and cannot even start on the spiritual journey of a renewed heart in Christ. So Lent is the time when Christians go completely against the self-congratulating and self-justifying orthodoxy of the modern age and look honestly in the mirror.
To this end, we might this Lent ask ourselves the three questions which the Devil puts to Jesus in the wilderness.
First, the stones and the bread. What is our bread? What keeps us going? If the only thing that gets us up in the morning is, say, seeking entertainment, the next fix, the next tidbit of gossip, picking and choosing clothes or food, shopping, or even work - if those are the priority in our life - then we are chewing on worthless stones in the vain hope that God will turn them to bread. He will not. He has given us the Living Bread of his Word, the Word he made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and gives us afresh in the words of Scripture and in the the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. So first, repent by making the true bread your priority.
Second, the Devil takes Jesus to the roof of the temple. what do we trust? What do we think is going to catch us if we fall? Perhaps we think we can make our own security out of sheer will or hard work, so that we do not need God. Or even if we do believe in God, there is a temptation to believe in him only when things are going well. To say, “I believe in God only as long as X, or Y, or Z does not happen to me” is to put God to the test. It is putting conditions on our belief when he offers us unconditional love. If ever you suffer this affliction (as many of us do sometimes), take up your Bible and read the Book of Job. If we believe in a God who is nailed to a Cross, we are foolish to expect a life of easy reward and no suffering. That mindset has to be changed if we want to know the truth of God, rather than setting him up as a daddy in the sky who gives us treats for being good. Again, repentance, changing of the heart and mind - this time to trust in God.
Third, the Devil tempts Jesus to worship him. To what do we really bend the knee? Most of us have idols that we set up from time to time where God really belongs. It may take exploration and a great deal of honesty to own up to ourselves about what really matters most in our lives. If it is not God, then there is more repentance do be done. And what is more, Jesus says that we are not only to worship God alone but to serve God alone. If we are serving to get our names on the rota or the board and look important, but don’t turn up on time (or at all) and so pile up more work on our Christian brothers and sisters, we are not serving God. We are serving ourselves, at best giving God a nice “tip” so generously offered from our precious time. All that we have and all that we are belong to him, and repentance helps us to see that truth.
So pray for the grace to know yourself more clearly, to see yourself more honestly. Repentance is the very first step on the road to knowing God truly, in all his unconditional forgiveness and love - and it will change your life.