I will admit that I don’t find most New Testament language about sin, temptation, repentance, and confession very helpful. (Once again, this blog is about language.) Not that the Old Testament rituals of animal sacrifice help me, either. That’s ok; no one religion’s perspectives capture the fullness of an infinite God. We all grab at parts of God as best we can. (I also find the language about “holiness” vague and unhelpful. I had to take a detour into Buddhist understandings of “wholeness” before I could return to Christian holiness with new eyes. To use a metaphor that might apply to my entire blog, sometimes you need to leave your hometown so that you return and can see its advantages.)
Most New Testament advice about repenting of your sin either sounds simple or radical to me. On the one hand, we are told that you can “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) A quick “Get thee behind me, Satan!” should take care of things. ‘Nuff said! Reject the devil (the personification of temptation) and that’s that. What could be easier? What’s wrong with you that this isn’t effective?
I am reminded of Flip Wilson’s classic drag character Geraldine, who would say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” only to have Satan reply, “It looks pretty good from back here, too.” Now that’s MY Tempter, not some weenie who can be dispensed with a few words!
I understand what the New Testament writers are up to here. They want to emphasize that grace, repentance, and forgiveness can’t be earned through our own efforts, that power over our sin comes from God and not from our own human ability. But repentance is more complicated than the word implies (and thus the innumerable sermons that remind us that “repentance” actually means “turning away” from sin).
The ancient injunction to simply “repent” can look an awful lot like what we in the modern world call “repression.” Shove it aside and it will go away. I’m personally very fond of repression, which has its uses, but it’s not a great tool for handling the big stuff. There are many garden variety sins (I was mean to someone today; I didn’t stop and help someone) where a quick prayer of repentance will suffice, but in this blog entry we’ve been focusing on the perpetual sins that don’t go away so easily, the things you can’t just say a few “Hail Marys” to solve. These are the deep temptations that I really didn’t want to go too far away, and so unsurprisingly they don’t. Deep repentance cannot be formulaic, and the church does us a disservice by acting like it can be.
This concept — that we can dispense with temptation with a few words — continues to reverberate today. It’s behind the modern idea that we can “just say no” to addiction. It’s at the heart of the cold-hearted injunction that people with problems should just “get over it.” As I have said elsewhere, the individual decision to change is a necessary part of all personal transformation, but that decision alone is not enough, not when we’re dealing with long-term patterns. When we refuse to empathize with people’s plight and tell them that they need to “get over it,” we are extending the wrong part of Christian language, language that provides an inadequate answer for deep-seated problems.
Paul’s language about his “thorn in the flesh” — about the persistent sin/temptation that he couldn’t get rid of in spite of his best efforts — comes closer to the mark. Instead of confessing his sin publicly, Paul is frustratingly vague and private about what his personal “thorn” is (and this language is way too tied up in his negative attitudes toward the flesh/body). Clearly the thorn is a deep nagging sin that is part of him, and much to his frustration it appears he’s going to have to get used to living with it. (Attaboy, Paul! Now we’re talking about sin!)
The persistent sin doesn’t budge when we try to rebuke it, and it is also resistant to the Gospel’s more radical advice about what to do with sin: if your eye or hand causes you to sin, then pluck it out, cut it off. (What’s up with the Bible’s obsession with chopping off body parts??) My experience with trying to purge truly deep temptation through an effort of will is that it comes back, which is what any modern thinker will tell you happens with repression.
If you chop off a part of you, you may find that that part was intimately connected to things you value. Here’s an example: I always have a musical playlist running through my head, and so I have long been a hummer (meaning “one who hums,” not an oversized land vehicle). My wife found it irritating when I hummed while she was talking, and so she asked me to stop. When I complied with this entirely justifiable request, I overdid it; I stopped humming altogether, much to my wife’s regret. She liked the soundtrack from my mental jukebox and had no intention of silencing it, but I was unable to surgically remove the offending part. It was somehow deeply connected to other things I valued.
Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow has helped me rethink how repentance works (once again, venturing into territory outside Christianity can help you refresh your understanding when Christian concepts have grown stale). Jung believed that our recurrent dark impulses are as much a part of us as our desire to do good; those thoughts are as inseparable from us as our shadow is. In fact, the shadow self should be explored — not lopped off – because it can contain vital energy. Investigating the shadow may unveil buried, highly personal insights into who you are and why you do the things you do. Jung saw the shadow as a gift.
You may not be willing to go that far, to see deep personal patterns of sin as a gift. But this is at least a reminder that the “thorn” may have a purpose: to remind us of our own weakness and helplessness. If we get too cocky with how well this repentance thing is working in our lives, here’s a persistent, humbling reminder that we don’t get it right. Humility is built into the practice of following Christ.
A really deep pattern of sin feels much like an addiction: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15) While it may appear that a recovering alcoholic repressed their drinking, they also have acknowledged its centrality and negotiated an uneasy peace with it. Cutting out drinking doesn’t get rid of the desire for drinking, just as cutting off a diseased limb doesn’t prevent pain from reoccurring (in the form of phantom pain). The openly acknowledged desire to engage in addictive behavior becomes part of their identity (“I am an alcoholic”), and the recovering alcoholic reavows the relationship with the shadow daily and in community. Once again, I think the language and practice of Alcoholics Anonymous can be instructive.
The dominant New Testament language about what do to with sin (rebuking it or cutting it out) has had limited success for me. As an alternative, I have grown used to sitting with my deeply seated sins in meditative prayer. Productive things happen when I sit nonjudgmentally with my addictive patterns instead of shoving them aside (that “judge not” commandment can be awfully handy). Once I sit a while with my own weaknesses, they seem less like boogeymen to me. I am much more able to view them with a merciful heart. I am much closer to real forgiveness.
As with all spiritual matters, your mileage may vary (which is why it’s important for all of us to proclaim the Gospel as we experience it, to open up alternatives for others). Rebuking and chopping may be perfectly sufficient for you. But if you also have found yourself too often in a “repent, lather, repeat” cycle when it comes to the patterns that separate you from the presence of God, may I suggest sitting with your deep sin. Or, as I like to say, “sitting with your shit.” (I find that being a pottymouth can be spiritually useful.) You can’t hide your shit from an omniscient God; you only end up trying to hide it from yourself. You may discover that your shit doesn’t disgust God, that it doesn’t actually cause God’s presence to withdraw. You can learn to sit with your shit in the merciful presence of God.