Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.


* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.

 

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When Hypocrisy Feeds Doubt

Note: This posting continues my discussion on the pervasive experience of doubt in the Christian’s spiritual journey. It has been my topic of discussion in my last three postings. You may want to read them first for context.

Bible text: Mark 9:23-24

Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I was once making a pastoral call on a woman who had been active in our church, but was now homebound after a serious injury. She loved her church. Her husband, on the other hand, disdained anything dealing with church.

As she and I chatted, her husband walked in. We had never met. After introductions, he began his rant against churches. The heart of his beef? The hypocrisy of  Christians. They preached one thing, he said, but did not live it out in their behavior. Somewhere in his younger days he had been exposed to a huge dose of toxic religion.

I think the shortfall between what the churches preach and how ordinary Christians live creates the most disbelief. Behind many of the most sophisticated intellectual attacks on Christianity often lies a bad experience with Christians. Or historical memories of the evil Christians have done in the name of Christ, evils like anti-Semitism, inquisitions, witch trials, etc.

The emotional damage goes even deeper if the bad experience was with clergy. Sexual abuse by clergy has gotten the most news coverage in recent years. But let us never forget the damage that clergy have done by small things such as an insensitive remark to the parents when a child dies or a lie told to a parishioner.

I must confess that I find this problem of the discrepancy between talk and walk one of the hardest things that I must deal with as a minister, whether I am talking with unbelievers or troubled churchgoers.  It is where I, too, prove most vulnerable to the assaults of doubt.

A Promise of Transformation?

Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian contemplative, has written, “Among the worldwide religions, Christianity is surely one of those most urgently and irrevocably set upon the total transformation of the human person.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cowley Publications, 2004, page 9).

I think Bourgeault captures a central theme of the message preached by both Jesus and the apostle Paul. Paul expresses it in a nutshell. “…if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This is stirring language. But if you look at the lives of most Christians, does it ring true? Do they live lives transformed in attitudes and behavior?

Certainly some do. There is no more spectacular example that Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he lived as a playboy in his adolescence. When he encountered the call of Jesus, however, all that changed. He began to live simply, austerely, and with gentle compassion, not only for other human beings but also for all living creatures. In a real way, he experienced the power of the gospel to transform.

Another spectacular example is Bill Wilson (Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. With his life shattered by alcoholism, he entered a hospital. There in the depths of deep depression, he cried out “If there be a God, let him show himself!” There in that same hospital room, he had a life-changing religious experience. It brought him the assurance he was free from his addiction.

Bill W. took his experience and with it expressed the fundamental principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. One fundamental principle of sobriety is the reliance upon a “higher power.”  (For the story of Bill W., and other stories of transformed people, I recommend John M. Mulder’s book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.)

But what about the rest of us who show no such dramatic transformation? We come across as half-breeds. We experience some of the new, but also a good portion of the old. When we fall short, those who expect us to live exemplary lives use our shortcomings to question the power and truth of what we preach. Doubt has a fertile growing field.

Of course what many despisers of the gospel don’t appreciate is that the power of the Christian gospel to transform seldom works instantaneously. The gospel works like leaven for most people on the Christian spiritual journey. The values of the gospel must penetrate deeply into the heart and mind of the believer. That takes time. It did even for Francis and Bill W.

That’s why humility is one of the greatest Christian virtues. All of us fall short of the values we espouse, and we bring great discredit to God’s name when we fail to acknowledge that every day. A fundamental rhythm of the Christian life is our asking for forgiveness and our conferring it on others.

In the liturgy of the Presbyterian church that I serve, worship begins with a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. Some have told me that they consider this a negative way to begin worship. I disagree. It is beginning worship with an acknowledgement of reality. We Christians always fall short of the high standards we espouse.

Still, those who are hostile to the Christian faith can use the hypocrisy of Christians to pointedly argue that Christianity is a delusion, if not a menace to humanity. How can we respond to that charge without denying the reality of our serious failures?

Some Help from C. S. Lewis

I have found something that C.S. Lewis wrote for children helpful in this way. The fourth volume of his Narnia Chronicles is titled The Silver Chair. It tells the story of a prince of Narnia, heir to the throne, who is abducted by a wicked witch and imprisoned in an underground chamber.

Aslan the lion (the Christ figure of the fairy tales) commissions two human children to find and free this missing prince. Their guide is Puddleglum, a marshwiggle, a swamp creature who is a blend of a human being and a frog.

The children and Puddleglum do find the prince. They help him break free of the witch’s spell. They are about to leave the enchanted chamber when the witch walks in. She immediately begins her strategy to reactivate the spell on the prince and to extend it to the two other children and the marshwiggle.

Her strategy is to breed doubt in their minds. As they describe the glories of the Overworld (Narnia), the witch implies that these are only projections of their own minds. They talk of the sun. She says they only dream of it. The reality is that their sun is simply an ordinary lamp.

When they talk of Aslan, she says they are confused in their minds. He is nothing more than a house cat.

Her spell almost works until Puddleglum stomps on her magic incense with his webfoot and smothers it. He then says to the witch:

…I won’t deny any of what you said…Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. [The Silver Chair, Chapter Twelve]

The despisers of Christianity like to throw the failures of Christians in our faces. And the failures are real. But in the end it is not the failures of Christians that inspire us to believe. It is the beauty of the way of life that Jesus and the gospels set before us. To paraphrase Puddleglum, the vision of living that Jesus presents before us licks the alternate visions that the world sets up for our emulation.

Jesus’ original twelve disciples were not a perfect lot. In fact, one denied him; another betrayed him into his death. But Jesus says to them, “Come, follow me.” And so we continue to do, honoring the vision as best we can with the Holy Spirit’s help.

Let me close this series with the words of the distraught father, who begs Jesus to heal his tormented son. “I believe; help my unbelief.”[Mark 9:24]

 

The Spiritual Revolution in One Single Word

Bible text: Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the Bible, I like to pay close attention to the text. For example, I try to be alert to the choice of words the Biblical author uses. Sometimes that choice of words can create a revolution in my spiritual understanding.

One passage that did just that several years ago is Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Revised Standard Version)

This verse falls in a passage where the apostle Paul is contrasting life in the Holy Spirit with life in the flesh. In verse 19, he lists a series of vices: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. He calls these vices “works” of the flesh.

He contrasts these with what he calls the “fruit” of the Spirit. Now what catches my attention is that he calls these Christian virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, not “works” of the Spirit. I expect him to write “works.” So why does he write “fruit” instead? That was the question I asked myself.

I suspect he used “fruit” instead of “works”, because the word “works” can be misleading. It suggests that these virtues are something we must work hard to acquire or express in our life. It would put the focus on what we do. That in turn would feed scrupulosity or guilt feelings as we try to live out these virtues and fail over and over again. We would make our Christians lives an exhausting affair.

That is how I once read this passage. I felt these virtues were something I had to work hard at acquiring. This feeling was fed mightily by the legalistic spirit of the Christianity in which I was raised. And it produced a fruit of bitterness and indeed exhaustion.

But that is not what Paul is saying. He is not saying these virtues are a result of our hard work. They are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. They are the “fruit” or by-product of living a deeply spiritual life.

The apricots on an apricot tree are the end result of the life process of the apricot tree. If the tree is healthy, if it is planted in good soil and fertilized and well watered, it will ultimately produce its apricots as a result of the life forces of the tree rising in the tree and producing its flowers and then its fruit.

If the tree is healthy, it will produce good fruit. If it is diseased, it will produce no fruit or diseased fruit. This is the point that Jesus too makes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:16-20. Jesus and Paul are at one in their viewpoint.

Now the secret to producing these virtues is not our hard work, our exhausting work to produce these virtues by an act of sheer will power. No, the secret is to root our lives in the Holy Spirit. As we seek to lay down roots in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will begin to work in our inner lives to transform our motivations, our desires, and our mindsets. And as those motivations, desires, and mindsets change, our behavior will follow.

I read Galatians 5:22-23 in linkage with Psalm 1. There we have the image of a righteous person as a sturdy, mature tree that is well rooted by streams of water. It stands firm in the many storms that life brings. It produces its fruit in due season.

And what is the secret of its stability and fruitfulness? It is that the righteous person roots himself or herself into a daily meditation upon the Torah of God.

Jesus picks up this image of streams of water and sees it as an image of the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).

What Paul would have us do is not work so hard at trying to achieve the virtues of the Christian life. He would have us work hard at rooting ourselves in the Spirit. If we work hard at trying to become more and more open to the Spirit in our lives, the Spirit will transform us.

That transformation may take some time, even a lifetime. But if we are maturing spiritually, we will begin to express the Christian virtues naturally, just as a tree produces its fruit.

When that truth dawned within my consciousness, it turned my religious life upside down. Instead of spending so much energy trying to be good, I found I was called to spend my energy trying to become more open to the Spirit.

And the time-honored way to do that in the Christian tradition is through the practice of what has come to be called the spiritual disciplines. They are many: prayer, especially more contemplative styles of prayer, careful reading and meditation on Scripture (lectio divina), frequent participation in the Eucharist, hospitality, spiritual discernment, fasting, confession, practicing the presence of God, and so on. Even weekly attendance at worship in my church is a spiritual discipline, for we can meet the Spirit of Christ in the communal body of his disciples.

You will find all of these practices and others described in the multitude of books on the spiritual life that we find in bookstores today. These practices, as I have come to practice them, have indeed changed my life in some dramatic ways.

I may be far from perfect in expressing Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in my way of living. But I don’t worry about that much. If I am faithful in working to become open to the Spirit in my life, those virtues will come, just as the apricot comes on the apricot tree.

For the fruit of the Spirit are the by-product of living a spiritual life. They are not that life’s primary focus. “Seek first God’s kingship and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” includes the virtues of the Christian life as well as the physical and material necessities of life.

This is not to say that the Christian life is a purely passive affair. We just lie back and let God do all the work. Just two verses later in Galatians, Paul will also say, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25).

We have a responsibility to try to live out these virtues as best we can. We try to walk the way we talk. But our actions in essence become a kind of prayer. By our efforts we appeal to God to work that transformation within us where these virtues become natural expressions of who we are and what we are becoming, new creations in Christ.

This understanding emerges from paying close attention to the choice of words that Paul uses. There is indeed a spiritual revolution encapsulated in that one word “fruit” versus “works.”