Columnists > Voices

Come clean

Repentance and living the simple life

Issue: "America's best & worst," Feb. 1, 2003

There is great relief with repentance. There is much lightening with the words "I did wrong. No excuse," uttered first in the heart, and then out loud to another sentient being. At once, the simplicity of it, the accessibility of it, will astound you. All the psychic reserves that were invested in the round-the-clock enterprise of keeping truth at bay are dismissed, freed up for better purposes. "Is this what I have spent so long avoiding and protecting myself against?" you will say, "this little bump, when I expected a train wreck?"

What a Byzantine labyrinth I had cobbled together to keep the hound off the scent. How drained I have been all the livelong day (and knew it not) from my prevaricating, from fortifying the fiction of my goodness against this or that discovery. See how easily the words play on the lips now: "I have sinned."

"Against You, You only have I sinned," blurted David to the Lord in Psalm 51, and it was the first peace he knew since "the spring when kings go off to war" and he, on his balcony, was caught in a snare that started the unraveling of the kingdom. "Against You only (not just some guy who had it coming) ... have I done what is evil (not just imperfect).... Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity (I am not just the product of disfunctional parents)."

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None but the repentant know the surprising gifts in its wake: rest, clarity, earnestness, "with no regret" (1 Corinthians 7).

As the Friar said to Romeo the Montague, "Vague repentance yields vague absolution." Let it all pour out, full and clear and without qualification. Who can now indict when I have just indicted myself? Nothing remains to be guarded against, nothing to defend. No menacing phantom lurks in the shadows to pounce with a warrant. Now I can breathe.

Little wonder that the first of Luther's 95 Theses is an endorsement of the life of repentance-news good enough to nail to a church door in Wittenberg. Not the pope, not the web of penitential canons and plenary indulgences, but one man, coming to his Savior, being made clean.

Little wonder that Ebenezer Scrooge, after repentance, was at a loss to understand his own reaction: "'I don't know what to do!' cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. 'I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.'" Every repentant man is a child again.

Naaman the Aramean (2 Kings 5) was not like a child- he was important. The commander of the army of Aram's King Ben-Hadad, he would gladly have slain a dragon to prove himself worthy of Elisha's healing, or set out with a will if the prophet had required (as Saul did of David) the foreskins of a hundred Philistines. But to dunk seven times in the Jordan was beyond his ken and dignity-until wiser servants gingerly proffered the logic of it: "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'!"

And what does the Lord require of you for cleansing of your own leprosy? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (Romans 10:8). Not a question of heroic feats of "ascending to heaven" or "descending into the abyss," but the laughably simple thing that a man is asked to do-to repent and trust in God's love.

Dr. Karl Barth was one of the towering theologians of the 20th century, for better or for worse. He is the author and subject of many a ponderous book, and you can dissect him till the cows come home. But on the day he was asked by a reporter to name the first order of importance in all his arcane cogitations, he thought and then replied, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

And so I toast to the uncomplicated life, to the daily dunking dance of repentance, to the Old Testament prophet's words, "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15), to the lisping of a child who says, "we know and rely on the love God has for us" (1 John 4:16).


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