Monday, July 7, 2014

Repentance: keep looking ahead

1 Sam is a fascinating book of the bible. Interspersed here and there in the midst of a long and bloody narrative of battles and wars and conflicts you find occasional gold nuggets of explicit theology. This is not to say, of course, that you couldn't do some heavy-duty theologizing from the narrative portions as well, but I am especially impressed by the explicit theology of the book at moments.

Consider this episode. The people ask for a king, which is effectively a rejection of Samuel as their leader. Samuel is naturally upset about this, but God tells him that they have rather rejected the LORD and not the prophet. Eventually Saul is anointed king, but Samuel also gives a farewell speech in which he rebukes the people for the grave evil they have committed in rejecting the leadership of God.

The people are cut to the heart by Samuel's sharp rebuke, and they ask him: Pray to the Lord your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves (1 Sam 12.19). His response is impressively enough one of encouragement:

Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless. For the Lord will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself (vv. 20-2).

This is fantastic spiritual advice for those who find themselves confronted with their sins. Samuel tells them: Yes, you've sinned and you've committed evil, but now that you have recognized this fact, your job is not to dwell on the past but to move forward; commit yourself in obedience to the LORD and don't get caught up in the worthless things of the past. Orient yourself to the future and change your ways in light of your new recognition. There's no help or use in getting overwhelmed by the guilt of your wrongdoing. What God is interested in is obedience (1 Sam 15.22-3).

Of course this is not to deny the importance of that moment of guilt, that moment of deep recognition of your wrong, the shame you feel for having committed it, the darkness bubbling deep within the surface that has found its way out on this occasion. I don't think it is spiritually normal or healthy never to feel any kind of guilt or dissatisfaction with yourself; otherwise it is hard to me to see how one might be motivated to change one's way of life. If you do wrong, you should feel guilty; it's a way of aligning your inner emotional life with the realities of morality and sin.

At the same time you do not remain there, paralyzed forever, because -- again -- God is interested in you living, not remaining frozen in self-abasement and self-loathing. Eclectic Orthodoxy on Facebook recently quoted something from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the topic of repentance that I think is good in this context:

To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God's love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.

How can you have confidence to move forward in repentance? Because, as Samuel says, the Lord will not cast away his people (12.22). In Jesus Christ you were once far off in your sins have been reconciled to God and brought near (Eph 2.13; Col 1.19-22). God has made you his own, and has taken your very salvation upon himself, pledging his very life for it. Therefore, in recognition but also in trust in him, repent of your sins and by his strength endeavor to obey.