It’s not that I was bad about saying, “I’m sorry”. It’s simply that I worked hard to never have a reason to say it. I made the “right” decisions and got along with as many people as possible. If I happened to mess up I would immediately rationalize and spin it, making myself look better than I was. (Or convince myself what I did wasn’t as bad as the other person. You don’t have to apologize if the other person hurt you worse, right?) If it was a true mistake (notice I said, “mistake” instead of “sin” or “offense”? See what I did there?), then I would muster the ability to overcome and not do the same thing twice.
As the oldest child, it worked to distract my siblings with bossiness and determination. When you’re high and mighty you can convince your subordinates that you’re above repentance. Even coming into adulthood I frequently used the art of smoothing things over, thinking I could replace reconciliation with friendliness and compliments. If all else failed, humor bridged the gap. Somewhere in me I believed compensating and doing “better” went further than being broken and repentant anyway.
I knew I couldn’t fool God into thinking I had my act together, but my prayers focused on, “Come on, let’s get on with this transformation” instead of, “Let me pause and grieve how I’ve sinned against you.” I was ready to skip to solutions, “Sorry, Lord. I know better. I’ll try harder.”
When I first surrendered my life to Jesus, I asked for forgiveness and told Him I wanted to follow Him alone. I knew my salvation was secure. But I missed the importance of continued confession and reconciliation.
I’m now 35 and completely unable to ignore my depravity. I see the ways I’ve failed in the wake behind me. Yes, even as a person who loves Jesus I’ve had whopping failures. Yes, even as a mother who deeply cares for her children I’ve caused hurt and thrown my own tantrums. Ah, nothing like parenthood to shine a light on the areas I’d love to tuck away.
I was looking through the life of Jesus in the gospels when John the Baptist’s message jumped out at me. I have a feeling John was like that even at the time–jumping out, impossible to turn the volume down on, glaringly clear yet providing a paradigm shift.
I can recite from memory John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” I’m familiar with John the Baptist–that God gave him the job of preparing the way for Jesus. Somehow on this particular day, in my slippers with books, Bibles, and paper strewn across my kitchen table, I heard it differently.
I thought of all John didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Study and memorize the law- Jesus is coming!” or “Pull your life together- the kingdom of God is at hand”, or “Be nice! Smooth things over! Quick! Jesus is on His way!”
None of those things were first on John’s list. Repentance had to come first. It always comes first. To be ready to receive Jesus, we have to recognize that we are separated from God. Only repenting can bring reconciliation in our relationship with Him. “Jesus, I thought my way was superior to yours and I’m sorry. I was wrong. Forgive me.” John isn’t talking about a high and mighty religious act. He’s talking about the brokenness that brings about softness of heart and liberating freedom.
It’s changing me to run to Jesus in repentance. It’s breaking down defensiveness I didn’t realize I carried and softening edges I didn’t identify as hard. It’s giving me empathy.
I’ve read much about Israel in Biblical times. There is a clear, repeating pattern. Prosperity leads to people forgetting God provided, which results in people thinking they don’t need God and disobeying His commands. Disobedience is followed by all hell breaking loose, then a coming back to the Lord, concluded with restoration. Then it begins again. I've worn out Old Testament pages underlining verses about restoration, remembering how God repairs and redeems His people.
As I’ve been practicing confession and reconciliation, I’ve noticed restoration doesn’t come from Israel getting smarter or holier. It doesn’t come because God decides to smooth over their sin and move on. It doesn’t come from penance. In fact, when they declare their own ability to overcome with “we will rebuild” statements (Isaiah 9:10), God shows them apart from Him there will be no rebuilding. More devastation occurs.
Instead, restoration comes with turning:
“Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” Joel 2:12, 13
Then the Lord will be zealous for His land, and pity His people. The Lord will answer…” Joel 2:18
My son let hurtful words slip out of his mouth, directed at his big sister. She was angry. He was angrier. His consequences involved saying two kind things to her. He was then required to serve her by putting her laundry away. I accompanied him.
“Son, I’m having you speak nice things to your sister and serve her so that you build the discipline of loving her and treating her with respect. Also, our sin has consequences. But honey, they don’t make up for the unkindness. You can’t ever make up for your sin. You can apologize for hurting her and making her feel unsafe. You can ask for forgiveness from her and Jesus, and reconcile your relationship.”
He had heard all of these things from me before. He completed his task and soon they were playing like nothing had happened. It was smoothed over but I didn't quite feel settled.
I was walking through the living room later that day and caught the moment: He stopped mid-play and looked at her. “I’m really sorry I said those things to you. You’re actually a good sister.” Before another word was said, she wrapped him in a hug.
That’s it. That’s the difference. We can smooth things over and convince ourselves, “We’ve moved past this and things feel normal. I’ve paid my penance. Smile, be nice, ignore the hurt until it subsides.” It’s saving face but it's a facade.
OR there’s reconciliation; the grave reality of taking inventory of the sin committed and hurt caused, choking out, “I wronged you and I’m sorry”. The beauty of a big sister forgiving even when it isn’t easy, and the load lifted as they resume play. There is deep relief in allowing vulnerability and letting walls fall that take too much effort to hold up anyway.
I spent the summer grieving over my country, my beloved United States. I heard the rants about every issue, watched the parade of presidential candidates, was stifled by wildfire haze and wished I could ignore the Biblical parallels as I read.
My prayer wasn’t, “Sorry we aren’t more law abiding; sorry we aren’t unified; sorry we aren’t pushing political reform; sorry we have too many guns; sorry we don't have enough guns.”
My prayer was a whisper over coffee in early morning, over the rake as I turned dirt in the garden, over everything I read and heard, and over my children as I tucked them in at night, “I’m sorry…we aren’t repentant. I’m sorry our hearts are hard, our insides are cold, and our walls are high. I’m sorry we’re bent on fixing instead of reconciling. I’m sorry we’re broken and still pretending we aren’t. I’m sorry we think we know better than You. Forgive us, Lord...forgive us.”
I want to pray for restoration and peace. I wish we could jump straight to solutions. But I’ve learned something else has to come first. It always comes first.
“You never go away from us, yet we have difficulty in returning to You. Come, Lord, stir us up and call us back. Kindle and seize us. Be our fire and our sweetness. Let us love. Let us run.”
― Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
Just throwing myself out there a bit...