Thursday, January 13, 2011
Regret and Repentance
Sadly Christians have jumped upon the regret bandwagon along with the world around us. We feel better about the terrible things people do if we sense in them a genuine sense of regret. The senseless violence of a Timothy McVeigh or, more recently, Jared Lee Loughner, would be easier to deal with if we heard them express regret over their murderous ways. In courtrooms, a sentence is often contingent upon regret shown by the perpetrator. Indeed the ability to show regret or remorse is often tied to a conclusion that the individual was "sane" when he or she is charged with some crime (heinous or ordinary). So often we look for this regret or remorse before we are willing to forgive people their hurtful words or actions against us. It has become for Christians an essential ingredient to repentance.
After being turned on to a discussion and, in particular, Tomáš Halík’s book Patience with God is an extended meditation on Luke’s account of the conversion of Zacchaeus, I find this preoccupation with regret to be most unhelpful in understanding repentance or dealing with the call of Jesus to forgive others as He has forgiven us. The author spends some time dealing extensively with the Biblical text and possible scenarios surrounding it and comes to the unmistakable conclusion that regret or remorse seems completely absent from Zacchaeus's repentance. Indeed, it seems he was never "convicted of [his] sins at an evangelistic meeting and cry out for forgiveness, or experience protracted anguish of soul that was then relieved by finally hearing and accepting the gospel..." He did not pray the sinner's prayer or languish on the anxious bench or even cry out for mercy in the torment of his guilty conscience. He did not tell the story of his terrible past or point to a moment when it all came crumbling down upon him until he turned his life over to Jesus for redemption.
This got me thinking. Page back to the prodigal and you find a similar absence of the kind of regret and remorse with which we are preoccupied today. The condition of the prodigal had caused him to reflect upon his situation and when he stared at the food of the pigs he was slopping, it led him to a remarkably self-serving conclusion. How many of my father's hired hands are well fed and here I am starving. Why, I will go back to my father and tell him the words he has longed to hear -- "I was wrong; I am sorry; I am a jerk. Let me be like one of your hired hands, okay?" A certainly accurate assessment of his circumstance but hardly the kind of thoughtful and heartfelt remorse and regret we would hope to find.
So he headed off "home" and his father embraced him long before he had a chance to perform his well-rehearsed speech. There is no record of a response from the waiting father in this parable -- except the directions to the servant to wash him up, clothe him, and feed him as the son he was born to be. Again, the focus is less on the marks of his repentance than on the generous heart of the father whose welcome was more than the son deserved and, apparently, more than he expected.
Halik observes: In Luke’s account of Zacchaeus’ conversion there is no mention of contrition in the sense of “feelings of penitence” that so many homilies and pious writings have tried so fervently to foster. Zacchaeus does not agonize: when he talks about giving half of his property to the poor and compensating those he cheated fourfold, it is due to the euphoria he feels at the presence of Jesus in his home. He acts more like the man in Jesus’ parable who found a treasure hidden in a field and in his elation sold everything in order to buy the field and thus acquire his rare find. (p.183)
Again, the central emotion of the stories of repentance from Jesus is the sense of joy -- even celebration. We do not hear so much of a tortured soul, the anguish over past failings, the angst over what will happen to the guilty, the fear of punishment, or fateful promises of never again, never again. Could it be that we have so shifted the focus of repentance from the one forgiving to the one who needs forgiveness that we have distanced ourselves completely from the stories and parables Luke records? Could it be that we have confused the ordinary human emotion of regret or remorse with the repentance only the Spirit can work in the heart of the sinner? Could it be that sin only becomes clear in our eyes when it stands in stark contrast to mercy? Ahhhh, something to think about here...