Why do we focus on our motivations for contrition? Why do we keep asking ourselves, “Am I heartily sorry? Do I sincerely repent? Or am I only going through the motions?”
Behind the veil of our confused emotions and self-scrutinizing, the age-old internal battle continues. Our sinful nature is on a crusade, and its target conquest is confession. This part of us always usurps control, making us detest dependence on another, addicted to self-interest. In confession it is no different. Even in this act, we rewrite the script and insert ourselves as the central character. We are engaging in substitutionary atonement, only it’s the wrong kind.
In this version, we stuff our regrets, our admissions of guilt, and our confession into a hollow mannequin and nail that to the cross. We expect God to forgive us for the purity of our confession. As always, we bring things back to ourselves. That’s why we’re troubled when we doubt the sincerity of our confession. We’re afraid that, if it has flaws, God will not accept our mannequin sacrifice. So we work at being really good at feeling really bad for what we’ve done. We must sincerely repent of our insincerity.
When he was a young man in the monastery, Martin Luther would accept no consolation because he never felt “sufficiently contrite” (note the adverb!) for his sins. He compares troubled consciences to geese. When they’re attacked by hawks, they try to fly, though they would do better to run. When wolves pursue them, they attempt to run, though they’d fare better by flying. Like geese, we try to flee from guilt this way and that. But we only increase our pain and run deeper into enemy territory. Though many spoke God’s word of forgiveness to Luther, he was so preoccupied with his own sorrow that he was deaf to the absolution. But finally, hope broke through.
“If you wait until you are sufficiently contrite,” Luther says, “you will never get to the hearing of gladness.” He distinguishes between our contrition and the word of Christ’s forgiveness as between earth and heaven. They are worlds apart. “Even though it be the highest and most perfect, contrition is something very tiny in respect to righteousness. It is nothing at all by which to merit something or to make satisfaction.” We must, Luther insists, turn attention away from ourselves—our sorrow, our regret, our confession, our repentance—with ears attuned only to the voice of the Father’s forgiveness. Each of us must say to our self, “If I have not been perfectly contrite, what is that to me either?” The quest for perfect repentance is a foolish pursuit, driving us back to ourselves, but not to Christ.
For far too long, I beat myself up every day because of what I’d done. Deep within the house of my mind, as in a secret chamber, I had a viewing room where I’d slink in, close the door, and watch memories of past sins. It was insanity to do this, but despite all the good I destroyed by my evil, I couldn’t manage to break free from the emotional entanglements of past, illicit relationships. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to un-love my ex-sins—not completely, not perfectly. So it seemed obvious to me I wasn’t really heartily sorry. That put me right back where I started: feeling hopeless, in need of fixing up my life before God would welcome me back.
For Luther the monk, there came a day when a brother’s words of forgiveness shattered his inward focus and ushered hope into his life. Eventually the Lord brought me to that same place of peace, where I still relearn daily.
Repentance is not a work that we perform, but a gift that Christ gives.
Here’s the hard yet simple lesson. Repentance is not a work that we perform, but a gift that Christ gives. It’s not an emotion that we stir up within ourselves, but a motion that Christ enacts within us. This motion is always away from us—away from guilt, away from self-devised methods of atonement—and toward Jesus.
Like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep in the parable of Luke 15, Christ trails after us when we go astray. He finds us, puts us atop his shoulders, and rejoices to restore us to the fold. Notice that He is the active one: He seeks, He finds, He brings us back.
It is not so much that we repent as that He repents us.
Do we contribute anything to this? No, not a thing. From beginning to end, repentance is the divine work of compassionate restoration. Lost sheep don’t find their way back; they’re the object of a search-and-rescue mission.
This is repentance: a gift we receive, not a work we do.