The Only Solution to Division, Hatred, and Anger
FEBRUARY 2, 2022
A few years back,
I wrote a book, Three Free Sins. (It was an intriguing title, but it got me into a lot of trouble.) I asked some friends to write blurbs for the book, including Tony Campolo. Tony wrote some very nice comments, but he told me privately that he wished I had written more about repentance. I told him, “There was a lot about repentance. You just didn’t like it.” Actually, while Tony liked what I wrote about repentance, he just missed it because I define repentance differently than most folks.
And just so you know, I define it biblically and properly.
Years ago, I became familiar with the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Lutheran religious order founded by Basilea Schlink and Erika Madauss in Darmstadt, Germany. In 1961 the Sisterhood opened a guesthouse in Jerusalem for Holocaust survivors—their efforts as “works of repentance” for Germany’s Third Reich. Mother Basilea set forth her ideas in a book simply titled, Repentance: The Joy Filled Life. I had that book in my library for years, but I never read it. Whenever I came across it on my bookshelf, I winced because I believed (and taught) that repentance was change. Forgiveness was different from repentance. With forgiveness, we confessed to spilling the milk. But with repentance, we got out the mop, cleaned up the mess, and replaced the bottle of milk. In those days, I knew that I needed forgiveness, but I didn’t think (in several areas) that I was good enough to repent and change. Subsequently, I did repent, and now I plan to share the truth I learned with you.
Repentance may lead to change (it often does), or it may not lead to change, but that isn’t what repentance is. The word repentance comes from a Greek word meaning “a change of mind.” It is not an action but an attitude. It is the recognition of who God is (holy, righteous, sovereign, and good) and who you are (not holy, righteous, sovereign, and good) and going to God with it. The natural demeanor of repentance is sorrow. Sometimes that sorrow comes with tears or great shame, and sometimes it is just an agreement with God without excuse or spin. Repentance can be seen in the words of the prodigal son when he returns home to his father, not in the words of the “righteous” brother who never left (Luke 15). Repentance is clearly expressed by the man who prayed in the temple that he was so bad he could ask for nothing but mercy, not the “righteous” man who didn’t think that he needed it (Luke 18). In both cases, the “bad person” understood, and the “good person” missed it.
At the heart of repentance is helplessness . . . and most of us don’t think we’re helpless when it comes to our sin. We feel guilty, but that guilt is because we’re sure we weren’t trying hard enough. We honestly believe that we will become the good people we want to be with a bit of determination, commitment, and discipline. Actually, no, we won’t. When you know that, it’s called repentance.
Here’s the point. Biblical repentance is the solution to almost all our relational, racial, ethnic, and class hatred and divisions. And if I were an atheist who cared, I would say the same thing. Everything else other than repentance may create money, power, and leverage, but it’s not even close to being worth the price.
We live in a time when the old ways, beliefs, and gods are cast aside and replaced with what I believe to be a utopian, shallow, and very destructive set of ways, beliefs, and gods. It’s not so much that the old ones were good and the new ones bad as it is a new way to commit an old sin that has always been a part of human nature. The “cancel culture” isn’t new either; it just has a new name. Heretics have always been banished, witches burned, and opposing views censored. There has always been the “us vs. them” syndrome and the demonization of “them.” There has always been self-righteousness and condemnation. Left and right, conservative and liberal, orthodox and unorthodox, have always tried to destroy each other. There has never been a shortage of the destruction of our enemies. Sometimes one side wins, and sometimes the other.
There isn’t a shortage of self-justification either. Killers have always put a spin on murder with “He needed killing.” The bank robber who explained that he robbed the bank because “that’s where the money is” can find a thousand reasons why it’s fair that they got the money and the bank lost it. You would be surprised by how many “innocent” people are in prison. I once spoke at a prison event and met a sweet, elderly lady who looked like Aunt Bee of Mayberry fame. She told me the story of how—even though she was innocent—she ended up in prison. “I do love Jesus,” she said, “and I’ve decided that he wanted me here for the others in prison.” Looking over her shoulder, I noticed that my friend who worked in prison just shook his head and laughed. Later he told me that “Aunt Bee” had run a nursing home and poured gasoline on some people, setting them on fire. He said, “Steve, don’t buy her story. She’s as guilty as sin.” I think she thought she was innocent, given how “sincere” she was.
“Sincere self-righteousness” is a new thought. When passionate, it destroys churches, nations, families, and individuals. Not only that, sincere and passionate self-righteousness tends to increase rather than diminish because the very nature of self-righteousness is blindness. If one could see it, it would no longer be self-righteousness.
So what should we do about it? Repent. We simply go to an “outside source” for truth. The problem with self-righteousness is that we see no need for an outside source. That dog won’t hunt for Christians, though, because our outside source is Scripture. For us, there is no option because “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The hard truth of Scripture is the fall and universal, pervasive sin. A good summary of that is the monastic list of the Seven Deadly Sins—lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. What grows in that dirt is endless—racism, xenophobia, arrogance, blame . . . and a “cancel culture” on steroids.
When it gets personal, it’s called repentance.
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my brother, not my sister . . .
Not my father, not my mother . . .
Not the stranger, not my neighbor . . .
Not the preacher, not the deacon . . .
It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
That’s a song of repentance. Repentance is the source of incredible power. If you can sing it, you have repented. Repentance isn’t a denial of truth or convictions but the affirmation of true truth and solid convictions. Not only that, Christians don’t just repent. Christians live a life of repentance.
Isn’t that horrible? No, just the opposite. A life of repentance is the most freeing, joyful, and exhilarating one we can live, and, believe it or not, it’s the only road to holiness. We don’t have anything to protect, defend, or prove. We don’t have to wear a mask to hide behind, smile when we don’t want to smile, or look serious when we don’t feel serious. We are free of the need to please others out of fear of rejection or say things that are acceptable and correct. The problem with self-righteousness is not only that it’s destructive to the self-righteous person and others, but, frankly, it’s also hard and tiring. It’s exhausting to protect, defend, and pretend all the time. It’s hard to believe that one is just one step away from rejection or destruction if one slips. If you will, repentance is a godly cavalier attitude that drives people nuts. And the best part is that one no longer cares if it does.
There is only one solution if we’re really concerned about racial division, hatred, and irrational anger. It’s repentance. Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). And Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4).
Steve, that may sound good, but it’s utopian.
No, it’s not. Luther said, “We are great sinners and have a great Savior.” That Savior gives his own a boatload of limitless mercy and grace. Because he has cut slack for us, we can cut the same slack for others.
I have a dear pastor friend whose father (also a pastor) had committed a horrible moral sin. My friend refused to allow his children to have anything to do with his father. The relationship between father and son wasn’t just bad . . . it was nonexistent. Then my friend fell in the same way his father had fallen years before. My friend’s father called and asked my friend if he could help the family move to a new location required by my friend’s sin. “I would like that,” my friend said to his father. So the father rented a truck, and they loaded it up with the family’s belongings and proceeded to drive it to the new house in another state. On the way, they stopped at a light, looked at each other, began to weep, and then fell into each other’s arms.
The father said to his son, “Now maybe we can talk.”
Maybe we can. So repent, okay?
He asked me to remind you.