Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, cause your face to shine, and we shall be saved. - Psalm 80:19
The theme of the season of Lent is repentance. It is the theme with which the Gospels open. The message of John the Baptist was, in the words of Mark’s Gospel, one of “repentance for the remission of sins,” and it is often overlooked that Jesus began his preaching ministry with the same call—“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the good news.”
The basic meaning of the Greek word translated “repent” is “to change one’s mind.” The call, then, is not simply to feel sorry for the wrong things one has done. It is a call to see things in a new light, to judge by a different set of standards. One of the standard devices to encourage this is to ask people what they would do if they knew this was the last day of their lives. Often, it turns out that they would try to convey a message of affection to someone dear to them. This is one of those things that seems to get buried in the busyness of daily living, one of those things that can always be done tomorrow and rarely gets done today.
When Jesus proclaimed that the time was fulfilled, that the kingdom of God was at hand, he must have awakened this suspicion of urgency in his listeners. “What have I been doing with my life? What do I really want to do with it? What have I been taking for granted?”
In a way, then, the Lenten practice of “giving up something” may miss the point, may even distract us from the point. It may, of course, develop some moral muscle, some self-discipline. It may enable us to come to grips with some issue we have been avoiding, to take some step we have been postponing. If it does, that is all to the good. However, this may simply be giving us a nudge along the path we have already been following. The kind of change demanded by the Lord’s call to repent is a significant change of direction. It implies not so much facing the problems we have already identified, but seeing things to which we have been blind.
Let me give an example. Here is a couple trying to raise a family, worried every month about meeting the bills. They keep looking for ways to economize, feeling guilty about any luxury they allow themselves. They keep looking for extra sources of income, feeling guilty about any time that is spent unproductively. The underlying feeling is that if they made all the right choices, if they were perfectly self-disciplined, the anxiety and the guilt would go away.
Now the fact is that for the past ten or more years they have managed somehow to pay their bills. The fact is that the anxiety and the guilt have not really helped at all. Their religion tells them that they are not alone in their efforts, that the Lord is indeed their shepherd; and it can happen that they look back over those years and get that message loud and clear. Their anxiety betrays a kind of materialism that is at odds with their faith. They have slipped into the assumption that their financial situation was the cause of their feelings, that more money would somehow make them feel secure.
But money does not “make us” feel, one way or another. We have feelings about money. If it is desperately important to us, those feelings will be strong. The more we regard it simply as a means to deeper or higher ends, the freer we will be. This is what the Lord was saying with his story of the rich man who was planning to tear down his barns and build bigger ones because his harvest had exceeded all expectations. “You fool! Tonight you soul will be required of you, and they who will have title to all you have gathered?”
It is particularly the message given to the young man who went away sorrowing “because he had great possessions.” “How hard it is for people who trust in wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven!” The problem is not in what we possess, but in our possessiveness. Virtually any psychologist will tell you that people tend to use material possessions to compensate for an inner poverty, what we would call a spiritual poverty. In any number of ways, they try to buy love~—with presents to their children, with athletic cars, with presents to themselves.
This tendency is not confined to the wealthy. The poor can be just as preoccupied with possessions as the rich, just as convinced that money can compensate for spiritual poverty. They can spend what they do have on display items. I suspect, for example, that a large proportion of Chicago Bulls or Dallas Cowboys sportswear is bought by people below or near the poverty level.
In fact, possessiveness may be clearest at the extremes, among the poor and among the rich. It may be subtlest among the middle classes, in that never-never land where it is so easy to take for granted what one has and want just a little more, where there is no clear definition of the word, “enough.” Most of us have more than our grandparents ever dreamed of having, more than they dreamed was possible. We live in this country that uses far more than its share of the world’s natural resources. What are we so worried about?
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” The kingdom of God is at hand. It is always at hand. As the Gospels remind us, it is within and among us. It is in our own attitudes toward each other and toward ourselves. Our daily routines offer us countless opportunities for peace of heart—in the words of the hymn, “the trivial round, the common task, will furnish all we need to ask: room to deny ourselves, a road to bring us daily nearer God.”
This does not mean that we forget about money or work or any responsibility. Actually, we handle such things better if we see them in proportion. Anxiety not only does not help, it hurts. It makes us not want to think about things, and then to think distortedly. If we can rise above our worries, we can see more clearly, act more consistently, plan more coherently. We do not then have unrealistic expectations either of miraculous salvation or of imminent disaster. We are much more able to see things fairly, as they are.
Such a change of mind, such a “repentance,” is very different from feeling sorry for our past sins. It is the kind of shift of perspective that the Gospels are talking about. It has a lot to do with the nearness of the kingdom of God, and it is indeed “good news.”
The colloquial kind of repentance, taking inventory of our faults, does not really qualify as “gospel,” as “good news,” at all. It is more like taking on a burden than like getting rid of one, and perhaps this fact alone should convince us that this is not the kind of repentance the Lord was talking about. “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain you.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This promise of an easy yoke is one of the most telling images in Scripture. That means a yoke that fits our shoulders, that does not chafe, that fits the burden to our own frame. Spiritually, then, it does not picture the taking away of responsibility, but changing our attitude so that responsibility does not hurt. It pictures sitting down to pay the monthly bills without anxiety even during the bad months~—and probably sitting down to the task more promptly because of that lack of anxiety. It means facing a difficult situation with the knowledge that this is an opportunity, that every difficulty worked through brings rewards of greater understanding and stronger faith.
Some years ago, I suggested to a student that especially when things seemed to be going wrong, it helped to try to discern what the Lord might have in mind, what good might come of the situation. This was apparently a brand new idea to this particular individual, who said, “I keep trying to figure out what the devil is up to.” It can make an immense difference if we start working for the best instead of trying to prevent the worst, especially in human relationships. If all we can see in situations is what can go wrong, then everyone we meet is a problem. The people we meet are not insensitive, and are likely to resist being treated as problems. If we take to heart the message of our faith, that the Lord is present and at work in everyone, people look different to us. Again, the people we meet are not insensitive, and are likely to appreciate being treated as worthwhile.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” We are asked to change our attitudes. It may help to realize, though, that we may not be totally off course. Not all turns are U-turns. We may use this Lenten season to observe our own attitudes a little more honestly, to see what does raise our anxiety level and to recognize that this is a sign that the yoke is chafing. We may carry through these weeks the image that the Lord has in mind a way we can respond to our difficulties with faith in the shepherd’s care.
Our closing hymn calls us to “turn back,” and links that turning with a vision of a brighter future. “Earth might be fair, . . . Earth shall be fair, and all her people one: nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.” “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.”