Ash Wednesday is a day of self-examination and repentance, the beginning of the season of Lent. My denomination doesn’t tend to formally observe the day, but Anne and I like the ritual and symbolism of it, and we’ll be having a short service with ashes with our family at home.
The ritual of putting ashes on the forehead echoes the more elaborate ancient mourning rituals of wearing sackcloth and rolling in the ashes. These, too, were symbols of repentance. From Arcana Coelestia:
As being clothed in sackcloth and rolling in ashes represented mourning over evils and falsities, it also represented humiliation [i.e. humbling oneself], and likewise repentance; for the primary thing in humiliation is to acknowledge that of himself one is nothing but evil and falsity. The same is true of repentance, which is brought about solely through humiliation, and this through the confession of the heart that of himself one is of such a nature. (§4779)
That’s a pretty extreme picture of the self-condemnation that can be involved in repentance. And I suspect it’s an uneasy one for those New Church men and women who have had a family history of excessive introspection and self-doubt. Is it really a good thing to dive into your psyche and spiritually roll in the ashes? Can wallowing in self-hatred really be a good thing?
Because a lot of us have seen the dark side of this approach, we might be tempted to instead approach the process of repentance as an unemotional self-review, a clinical self check-up that results in a simple to-do (or rather, not-to-do) list. But I think that misses the mark too. Repentance should be neither a wallowing in self-loathing nor a detached check-the-boxes affair. True repentance finds a middle ground between these two extremes.
Admitting that we’ve got big problems
In the process of repentance, we’re called to hold up our intentions and actions against the Lord’s law, and see where we have broken His commandments – places where we have held other people in contempt, or lied, or stolen, or committed adultery. When we recognize those things in ourselves, they should inspire grief. This is not where I want to be, not who I want to be. Genuine honesty with ourselves leads us not just to acknowledge that we have a few minor flaws, but that we are “miserable sinners.” James wrote of this explicitly in his epistle:
Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. (James 4:8-9)
And from True Christian Religion:
Confession [during repentance] should be that one sees, recognizes and acknowledges one’s evils, and reveals oneself as a wretched sinner.
Does self-examination always bring you to that point? In my experience, no. But if you make repentance into a regular practice, you will definitely get there.
Guilt is only useful if it moves us forward
Honest self-examination, practiced regularly, will lead to feelings of guilt and even despair. But here’s the vital thing: we are not supposed to stay there. This is a starting point. Self-examination becomes destructive when we get mired in never-ending introspection and fail to move to the next step of resolving to change. Here’s how Paul put it in his second epistle to the Corinthians:
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
The devil has two great tricks. The first is to convince us that we are fine the way we are, that we don’t need to change. But if that doesn’t work, he tries the other side: that our sin is too great, that we can never change. The forces of hell do everything they can to thoroughly convince us of this without actually letting us identify any particular sins, so that we feel like miserable sinners but don’t have any inkling of anything we could do about it. This is how we fall into the toxic kind of self-loathing.I admit that this is probably my biggest challenge in my own repentance: I tend to lose focus and slide into a general sense that I tend toward bad stuff, or even slightly more specific bad stuff (e.g. “I have a tendency to spiritually murder”), but nothing particular enough that I can clearly identify it every day. When that happens I’m left with a vague sense that I should be doing better, but not a lot of change.
Getting specific about actions we can change
So what do we do? Two things: we get specific, and we look at actions – actions we can take and stop taking. I love the account of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist rebuked the people coming to him:
“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance!” (Luke 3:7-8).
It’s almost nice to hear such harsh words of condemnation, since they pretty accurately reflect the kind of self-condemnation that comes up in repentance. What are people supposed to do in the face of this kind of apocalyptic warning? It turns out to be pretty straightforward:
So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)
Give to those who have less than you. Don’t take more than you’re owed. Don’t intimidate or make up false accusations. These are simple, everyday actions – but they’re the way to “flee from the wrath to come.” And I’ve found identifying concrete, identifiable actions to be a vital part of repentance, even if my focus is on something more abstract like, “Hold less contempt for people.” If I can identify the way I do that (even if it’s just speaking in a certain tone of voice), I can see a way forward much more clearly than if it remains abstract.
Trusting the process
That doesn’t mean you’re going to bounce back from the depths of self-confession with a sense that things aren’t so bad after all. The commitment to change comes with a thorough recognition that we can’t do it alone, and heartfelt prayer to the Lord to be merciful and help us. As I mentioned in my sermon last week, this is why the Lord lets us get to the depths in the first place – so that we recognize our inability to do it ourselves. When we come out of the other side of the process, we come out with humility, a recognition that we can’t lift ourselves up – only the Lord can do that. That passage from James I quoted earlier continues:
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. (James 4:10)
We do the humbling of ourselves, the Lord lifts us from despair. But what I think is important to remember is that we don’t have to worry about forcing ourselves to feel the feelings of despair. We’re told to pray “lead us not into temptation” even though we know temptations have to come. We do our part – identifying sins, acknowledging our guilt, praying to the Lord, and resolving to change – and we trust that the Lord will do His part, that the feelings that we need to feel will be called up at the right time. From True Christian Religion again:
[When a person is repenting], it is the Lord who has guided the person in self-examination, disclosed the sins, and inspired grief, and together with this an effort to desist from them and begin a new life. (§539)
When the grief and despair do come, we pray, “Deliver us from evil!” And we let the Lord lift us up. We don’t stay down in the ashes. But we leave them with their remembrance in our minds and on our foreheads, with a new recognition that everything – even our repentance itself – is a gift from God.
Note: for an in-depth guide to repentance, I highly recommend the Begin a New Life website.
(Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Image copyright: utnapistims / 123RF Stock Photo)