Repent sounds like such a religious word, like street preachers shouting, like moralists wagging fingers. But I learned a long time ago that the literal translation of "repent" is to turn around. "Hey, buddy, you're headed in the wrong direction"—that sounds like a helpful, kind word, not a scathing correction. I think it's this type of encouraging word that Jesus himself offers when he begins his ministry with a proclamation: "The kingdom of God is among you. Repent, and believe the good news."
If to repent is to turn around, to turn towards God and start walking with God instead of on my own away from God, then confession is a starting point on the road to the kingdom.
Confession is the starting point on the road to the kingdom.
Try to envision it with me—imagine yourself walking towards something you want, even though you have a nagging sense that the something you want might not be good for you, might not be best for you, might even hurt someone else. That something might be very obvious, like you decide to emulate Walter White (of Breaking Bad fame) and become a crystal-meth kingpin. Or it might be more domestic in nature, like you find yourself snapping at your kids and feeling gross about your body and saying something mean about your sister to your other sister and drinking three glasses of wine that night and knowing that you wish everything didn't feel quite so saturated with self-pity and complaints.
On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten anticipation of Easter, I decide to reflect on each day and confess one thing. One of the many things I've realized over the course of the past few weeks of confession is that when I pay attention to my sin, I feel icky. It's not guilt. The ickiness is an awareness of the fact that sin is me walking away from God, walking away from full life, from beauty and truth and goodness and everything I want for myself and for others. It's not confession that makes me feel bad. It's sin. And it's confession that helps me recognize my own malaise.
So here I am, walking away from God with polite little steps. And in comes confession, this act of pausing each day to ask myself where and when I have turned away from the life God offers. Confession is me stopping in my tracks, turning my head for a minute and looking back over my shoulder. Confession is seeing where I want to be instead of where I am: seeing the satisfaction of reconciliation with my kids after I let irritation get the better of me, expecting the feeling of lightness and beauty after thinking well of the people around me instead of harboring jealousy or resentment, anticipating the sense of health and well-being after a good meal and a good night's sleep instead of the restlessness of anxiety.
And then, I'm sad to say, after that momentary pause in which I acknowledge my wrong action or thought, after I turn my head towards the light, I often start walking away again. The pattern goes something like: step-step-step away from God, glance over shoulder and think, "Wow it's lovely over there, but it seems like it would take a lot of hard work to get there," turn back towards where I was headed in the first place, step-step-step.
Confession interrupts my walk away from God. It slows me down. It increases my longing for change. But it doesn't change me. It doesn't turn me around.
Jesus told us to "repent and believe." Later in his ministry, he also told the parable of the two sons, a story in which a wayward son finally decides to turn around and come home to his father. One of the most exhilarating moments in that story is when we realize that the son doesn't need to walk all the way home by himself. Rather, Jesus says, "while he was still a long way off" his father ran out to greet him. The father was looking for the son, longing for him to turn around. And once he did, the father sprinted towards him to welcome him, and to escort him home.
I've been heartened by that passage throughout this season of Lent, as I have become daily more aware of the ways I walk away from God and away from the full life God offers. Confession has made me aware of my sin and even given me a desire to repent. But I can't walk all the way on my own. I have found that when I finally admit I'm headed in the wrong direction and turn around, I am no longer alone.
Jesus talks about God's kingdom all the time, and he repeatedly envisions it as a party—a banquet, a feast, a joyful celebration of all that is good. How strange that I keep wandering away from the banquet, glimpsing over my shoulder at the twinkling lights I've left behind. How beautiful that when I finally start to find my way back to the celebration, I find that God has been running towards me, embracing me, calling me his own, welcoming me home.
That scary, religious word—repent? An invitation to a banquet in the house of the Lord. A means of participation in the kingdom of God. A welcome into the family.