Lance Armstrong and the Meaning of Repentance

Lance Armstrong and the Meaning of Repentance January 26, 2015

This just in from the BBC in an interview with cyclist, Lance Armstrong:

Shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong believes the time is coming when he should be forgiven for doping and lying – and told the BBC he would probably do it again.  Armstrong, 43, was stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned from sport for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) in August 2012.  “If I was racing in 2015, no, I wouldn’t do it again because I don’t think you have to,” he said.  “If you take me back to 1995, when doping was completely pervasive, I would probably do it again.

“I should be forgiven, but I would do it again – only not now, because it isn’t necessary.”  And Mr. Armstrong wonders why his efforts at finding forgiveness have had “varying results?”

The strange incongruity of those assertions is nothing short of stunning. I don’t know enough about Mr. Armstrong’s inner life to judge the state of his soul, nor do I think much of poring over the lives of public figures, subjecting them to spiritual and psychological analysis.  But the story in the BBC does have me thinking about repentance and it suggested that it might be worth getting clear about the spiritual logic of repentance.  Here are some thoughts, arising out of questions that are natural to ask:

Does repentance involve feeling bad about ourselves?

Answer: No.  The misunderstanding that probably puts a hard stop to spiritual growth millions of times every day is the notion that what God wants from us is to feel badly about ourselves.  Repentance is not about who we are.  It’s about what we have done.

So, I’m not supposed to be ashamed of myself?

Answer: No.  Repentance is not about shaming anyone.  It’s about owning our culpability for wrongdoing.  That may lead to regret or remorse, but shame is a largely destructive emotion and it tends to foreclose on our confidence that God can forgive us.  The consistent message of the Christian message has been that there isn’t anything we can do to foreclose on that possibility.

I see, repentance is about making me feel bad – at least as far as regret or remorse is concerned?

No, again.  Oh, to be sure, we may feel regret and remorse.  Those feelings are the consequence of our actions and they are emotions that alert us to the fact that we have done something that jeopardizes the balance in our relationship with God or with others.  That’s what happens when you are spiritually and emotionally mature.   But getting you to feel remorse or regret is not what God is after in the act of repentance.

So, what is God’s goal?

Think of it this way.  When we ignore God, violate the demands of our conscience, or harm others, we usually do it because something is too important in our lives for us to experience freedom.  We are owned by our fears or our addictions. The goal of repentance is to free us of those fears and addictions, so that God can give us what no one and nothing else can: ordered love, balance, freedom – all of which are the consequences of a life centered in God.

That was why Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 428) described repentance as God-given “medicine.”  The purpose of repentance isn’t about feeling bad.  It isn’t about self-hating, soul-crushing shame.  It is about the freedom to receive healing.  An unqualified, honest, transparent break with the past, in the name of embracing a life marked by joyed-filled love and grace.

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