A Call to Humility and Repentance

A Call to Humility and Repentance November 8, 2012

My buddy Derek wrote a post yesterday about how it’s not inappopriate for Christians to either mourn or celebrate in response to a presidential election. I agree with what Derek had to say; it was a legitimate reminder to be gracious in responding to the emotions of our friends. I do also think that all Christians regardless of our political views need to be called to humility and repentance. We have just been through a very acrimonious campaign season in which we have all sinned by saying hurtful and unfair things about blanket categories of people who are either “immoral and lazy” or “greedy and dishonest.” It is now time to examine ourselves and ask God to heal us from the spiritual damage of our sin. Most of my thoughts here are inspired by a recent sermon “Gratuitous Grace, Unfair Grace” from my favorite preacher Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC, which you should listen to on his podcast.

What’s wrong with the world? The British Christian writer G.K. Chesterton had a two word response when this question was posed by a London newspaper: I am. The single greatest power that we receive as Christians is the ability to say that and mean it. When we trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins, we can examine ourselves and unmask the ulterior motives that taint even the most virtuous of our deeds. If we engage in this task knowing in our hearts how deeply God loves us, then it doesn’t turn us into guilt-ridden, anxious people, but people who are able to have increasingly high standards for their behavior without correspondingly high opinions of themselves. The more that we mature spiritually, our journey becomes less about living up to an abstract standard of correctness and more about removing all internal obstacles to being filled with the perfect love of an irresponsibly generous and forgiving God. This process of being reshaped into God’s image as God deepens our self-awareness is what we call repentance, which is more than just being sorry enough about a particular mistake not to do it again. True repentance is the spirit of one who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), which in both the Hebrew sense of tzedek and the Greek sense of dikaio has to do with being spiritually centered enough to treat other people with perfect hospitality and dignity rather than following a set of rules perfectly without any internal joy or mercy (Matthew 23:27-28).

Unfortunately, many Christians today are quite spiritually immature. We talk a whole lot about other peoples’ sins as the means by which we avoid the self-examination that is supposed to be the centerpiece of Christian discipleship. This especially takes place during a political campaign season, in which we spend our intellectual and emotional energy convincing ourselves that everything bad in our country is the fault of whatever party or scapegoat we have chosen. It’s been tremendously embarrassing to see how Christians seem to do a better job of accusing and blaming others hyperbolically and irresponsibly than non-Christians do. In fact, I don’t think it’s wrong to interpret Tuesday’s election at least partly as a referendum on how Christians are coming across to other people. Seeing the number of Christians who got on facebook to declare the impending apocalypse the morning after the election does a lot to confirm this theory. How many Christians are willing to use the power that has been given to us by the cross to look inside ourselves for the source of the major evangelism crisis that is exemplified when the new generation of millennials are explicitly voting against us not only at the polls but through how they define themselves spiritually? I am not at all saying that Republican and Christian are synonymous, but I do think that many non-Christians are voting Democrat in order to vote against Christians because we have become the Pharisees that Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being.

One of our major problems is that we make Jesus’ cross the source of our self-righteousness rather than seeing it as our liberation from self-righteousness. Christians so often do good deeds not in order to share the selfless grace and generosity that God has lavished upon us, but in order to build a soapbox from which we can condemn other people. Escaping our self-righteousness is a life-long struggle. It takes different forms for different people. Some are self-righteous about their personal spiritual practices; others about the political causes they support; still others about their ability to be drama-free and level-headed. The reason that self-righteousness is such a pernicious sin is because it undermines our capacity to love both God and other people. When we are invested in preserving our dignity and honor at all costs, we lie to ourselves about our mistakes and lie to ourselves about other people in order to cover up the injustices we’ve committed against them. We make the things that we do well the most important things that other people ought to be doing, and we reassure ourselves by talking and thinking about the shortcomings of people who don’t live up to our standards. We make up mythical categories of people to rail against whether they are “greedy billionaires” or “welfare mamas” or “illegal aliens” or “religious bigots,” their function being to affirm how right we are in contrast. When we’re living this “without apology” lifestyle, God becomes a cruel oppressor instead of a lavishly generous father, which creates the need for us to come up with more and more litmus tests to determine who is on God’s good side and who isn’t.

No politician can heal our nation, no matter how bipartisan or charismatic they are. It’s going to require a much more tremendous transformation than that. If Christians become the people of humility and repentance that Jesus died to make us, then we will be able to contribute to the transformation that is necessary. Our holiness should be marked by how tough we are on ourselves and how merciful we are to others. It is appropriate to be zealous about pursuing righteousness not only as individuals but as a community that has entered into accountable covenantal relationship together. This is so utterly different than pronouncing condemnation on people we’ve never met. There is a legitimate place for speaking prophetically in the public square. I have continually struggled with understanding the boundaries of appropriate prophetic discourse. We cannot expect America to be Christ’s body. But it’s reasonable to speak up for religious liberty, to advocate for vulnerable people whom we need the government’s help supporting, and to confront the corrosive cultural forces that undermine our society’s stability. We can’t say the right words in the right tone unless we speak out of our own humble repentance. The truth must be spoken in love or else it isn’t truth. So we should be silent until we feel confident that God has burned off enough of our self-righteousness that we won’t further blaspheme His name by opening our mouths. It’s neither time to forecast Armageddon or gloat about the elections being an affirmation of our own particular Christian sect. It’s time to ask God to make us into gentle, disciplined, merciful people who can help our nation heal.

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