Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Marks of True Repentance

More often than not, blog posts are the basis of articles I write.  Some of the ideas that start on the blog get tweaked a bit and turned into something I submit for publication.  Occasionally, it works the other way around and I post something that has already been published or accepted for publication.  This is one of those instances.  I write regularly for a Christian newspaper called Good News Florida.  This past month my article was the cover story.  I reprint it here for you.

Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have once again been thrust into the spotlight. After a period of relative calm, the headlines have come with a flurry. In mid-January, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping his way to Tour de France dominance. In the lead up to the Superbowl, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was accused of using deer antler spray, a banned substance, to aid his recovery from a torn tricep early in the season. Almost concurrently came a story involving Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, and a handful of other baseball players appearing on a list from an anti-aging clinic in association with distributing PEDs. Rodriguez promptly denied all involvement, but had previously admitted to using PEDs earlier in his career in a “tell-all” interview with Katie Couric. Three scandals in various states of exposure. When it rains it pours.

Repentance or Saving Face?
In the lead up to Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey, there was a syndicated radio show discussing the familiar refrain of "Is he truly sorry or is he just sorry he got caught?" Most callers thought it was the latter. The pattern of public repentance following exposure is all too familiar. It may be delayed as long as possible, but when excuses have been exhausted and the truth is unavoidable, the accused will come, tail between their legs, and apologize for their misdeeds.  In our skepticism, we discount the sincerity of any sorrow that follows unraveling scandal. If sincere, we speculate, it would have come earlier, before the truth was dragged into the light by dogged investigation.

The Marks of Genuine Repentance
But is it possible that exposure could be the gateway to true repentance, a needed wake-up call that stirs the accused from their moral stupor? Could not God use this to prompt true repentance? This demands discernment.  When someone's hand is caught in the cookie jar, how can we distinguish between repentance from the heart and a display merely intended to save face? For this we should look for at least three characteristics as marks of genuine repentance.

1. Transparency
When scandal is revealed it is almost always the tip of the iceberg that has been pushed above the surface. A dense mass remains hidden by the surrounding water. The worst may be exposed, but there is much that remains concealed. Merely addressing what has been uncovered is a warning sign of insincerity.

Being exposed is passive, something done to the individual. It is outside of their control.  They did not choose to reveal this. But with much remaining concealed, there is the opportunity to be active in the exposure, revealing information without it being dragged out. Scandal breaks when an individual is exposed by another. Repentance begins when the individual moves beyond the passive to the active and exposes oneself.

Sin loses its potency when exposed to the light. True repentance will reveal the bulk beneath the surface because the risk of shame is worth the hope of recovery. Admit the illness and energy isn’t wasted on projecting an image of health. Focus can be given fully to the cure.

2. Responsibility
In true repentance, there is a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s choices.  True, divine pardon is freely available through Christ. But while the stain of sin can be wiped away immediately, the consequences of sin linger on. Wounds are not healed in a moment. Trust is not restored overnight. After a great fall it is no easy task to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Sin creates a tangled mess. Unraveling the snarled ball will take time and effort.

In taking responsibility, true repentance does not resort to excuses or minimization. The gravity of one’s offense is acknowledged and the consequences are accepted. The slow path of restoration will be embraced and shortcuts will be avoided. Depending on the circumstances, these consequences may involve financial obligation, legal punishment, job loss, anger from victims, widespread distrust, family division, damaged reputation, and broken friendships, among others.  None of these are appealing, but they are deserved. True repentance will be reflected in a willingness to lie in the bed one has made. 

3. Accountability
While scandal is exposed in a moment, splashed across the front pages of tabloids and whispered about in hushed voice at the grocery store, true repentance is something that is evidenced over time. By the time scandal is exposed, it is generally deep in a destructive spiral. This did not happen overnight and it will not be overcome overnight. There are well-established patterns that must be broken and weaknesses that must be protected against. Momentary shame may be enough to correct behavior for a short time, but long-term change will come only as root issues are dealt with over time. Exposure will not eliminate vulnerability.

True repentance will entail pursuing full transformation. This may be aided by professional counseling or involvement in a support group. It will certainly demand involving others in the process to help protect against set back, overcome rough patches and celebrate progress. Restoration is a long and wearisome road. Progress is mingled with regress and discouragement can easily set in. On-going accountability with a trusted group will help maintain momentum long after the public has wearied of the story.

The sincerity of repentance will be evidenced over time.  Transparency, responsibility, and accountability will become obvious in the ensuing days, weeks, and months.  But for those who believe in a God of grace, there is always the hope that exposure may be the first step toward restoration.  While these three stories represent a thick slice of scandal pie in the realm of sports, there are plenty of other slices to be served.  There will be more scandals exposed, more tearful news conferences, and more orchestrated confessions, in sports, in politics, in media, in ministry, and even in personal life with friends and family.  Being able to discern true repentance will have recurring relevance, even for those with no interest in sports. 

By the way, my wife began a blog this last week entitled "A Healthy Wife."  It is written to support women in their relationships with their husbands.  She has a message worth sharing.  She communicates it well.  I commend it to you.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lenten Feasting - The Prophets

This Lent I am feasting instead of fasting.  I am feasting on the Word of God.  I have chosen to read through the Bible cover to cover.  I’m following a reading plan suggested by Margaret Feinberg and hope to blog occasionally about what I am learning through the process.

I love the prophets.  It’s probably my favorite genre of Scripture.  But 250 chapters of prophecy crammed into a week and a half was overwhelming.  The relentless accusation of unfaithfulness is met with an infusion of judgment in almost every chapter.  The tone is quite harsh.  But I needed this, maybe more than any other chuck of reading.

The Israelites are spiritual adulterers, betraying their covenant “marriage” with God.  They became prostitutes working the corner, eager to spread their legs in wanton lust.  They are extremely promiscuous.  “You gave yourself as a prostitute to every man who came along (Ez. 16:15).”  They will lift their skirt for just about anyone.  Worse yet, they expect no payment and even bribe their lovers with gifts (Ez. 16:33-34).  The prostitute is paying the customer. 

These images of whoring Israel are repeated over and over again, especially in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.  The language is profane.  Fifty shades in the holy book.  Even when the vocabulary of adultery is not used, the theme of unfaithfulness continues.  They have forsaken God and chosen worthless idols.

This is sin.  Not just Israel’s.  Mine.  I’m the idol worshipper.  I’m the adulterer.  All this strong language of slutty betrayal is a reminder of the heinousness of my sin.  I tend to minimize the gravity of my offense.  The sins of others are disgusting, repugnant, offensive, and shocking, but my own sin is justifiable.  I can excuse my poor behavior.  It doesn’t seem so terrible when it is so familiar.  The prophets remind me of how grievous my sin is.  My heart is blacker than I care to admit. 

But in this there is hope.  The prophets ring loud with judgment but the judgment paves the way for redemption.  I was startled by how often the phrase is repeated in the book of Ezekiel, “Then they will know that I am the Lord.”  All this judgment is a wake up call.  God’s wrath is rousing his people from their stupor.  He is shaking them (another repeated theme), as if grabbing them by the shoulders to get their attention.  Judgment is not a vindictive reaction.  It is a loving discipline.  God is drawing us back to himself, opening our eyes to who he is.

There are assurances of forgiveness (Jer. 50:20), promises of hope (Jer 29:11), the expectation of a good shepherd (Ez. 34:23), an offer of a new heart (Ez. 36:26), the return of God's glory, and a city named “the Lord is There” (Ez 48:35), reflecting God’s longing to live among his people.  The prophets are a 250 chapters of variations on a theme neatly summed up by Paul, “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).  I needed this reminder of how disgusting my sin is and how extravagant God's grace is in return.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lenten Feasting - Kings and Chronicles

This Lent I am feasting instead of fasting.  I am feasting on the Word of God.  I have chosen to read through the Bible cover to cover.  I’m following a reading plan suggested by Margaret Feinberg and hope to blog occasionally about what I am learning through the process. 

I think that after I get off this bullet train through the Bible, I’d like to go back and revisit Kings and Chronicles.  It’s a compelling vista I need more time to explore.  Racing through, I was able to see enough of the landscape to recognize it’s beauty, but not enough to take it all in.  Even this Seminary grad gets bogged down by the cast of characters.  This thick chronology becomes a blur; a bunch of –iahs that are hard to keep straight.  Two lines of kings and their supporting casts of wives, prophets, commanders, and enemies.  Even the stories that are most familiar are mythologized with vestiges of flannel graph.  This feels like Jack and the Beanstalk, not the Word of God.

And yet, there is rich theology undergirding this plot line. 

The book of Kings barters in black and white.  Each king is summarized with a simple assessment.  The king either did what was pleasing in the eyes of the Lord or did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. 

The rebel Northern Kingdom of Israel  is universally bad.  Every king in their history, without exception, did what was evil.  Over 200 years with nearly 20 different rulers and every one of them is a dud.

The “faithful” Southern kingdom of Judah, ruled by the descendants of David, is a roller coaster of ups and downs. The good kings are outnumbered by the bad ones, but the length of their reigns overshadows the bad ones, as if God is blessing their obedience.  The Davidic line is intact, not only in seed, but in blessing. 

Chronicles focuses in on this Davidic line and virtually ignores the northern kingdom (except when their histories cross paths).  But Chronicles offers a more nuanced perspective.   Rehoboam, the first king of Judah in the divided kingdom, begins his reign in foolishness, refusing to show mercy to his subjects and inciting civil war.  As he establishes his rule, he “wisely gave responsibilities to his other sons…” (2 Chron. 2:23).  Once his kingdom is established, he abandons the law of God (2 Chron. 12:1).  But when confronted by the prophet Shemaiah, Rehoboam humbles himself and the Lord’s anger is turned aside (2 Chron. 12:12).  In the end he is assessed as “an evil king, for he did not seek the Lord with all his heart” (2 Chron. 12:14). 

Foolishness and wisdom, abandoning God, then humbling himself, but still not seeking God with all his heart.  Here the contrast is not between the two nations, but within the one nation of Judah.  And the roller coaster is not just from one king to the next, but within the reign of one king in the nation. 

This pattern is common in Chronicles.  Some kings start good and end bad, some start bad and end good.  Even Hezekiah, the high water mark of the divided kingdom, becomes proud after divine healing (2 Chron. 32:25). 

After repeated warning through the prophets, God’s anger could no longer be restrained and the nation is overthrown. The book could end there, but it doesn’t.  Instead it ends with a mention of the edict by king Cyrus allowing the people to return to the land.  Even after repeated displays of faithlessness by his people, God is faithful.  He can't be anything less.  

Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:11-13)