Monday, January 05, 2015

Be still...

Someone asked me what I would say to a person struggling with repentance, even knowing that the things of faith are confusing and concerning to me at the moment.  I have hesitated to answer because the words I would speak are the words I so desperately long to have spoken to me.  They are words of theology, of course, and the person asking is a person who works in the theology business.  And, thus, I have been afraid to answer.

I have written a number of responses, ranging from long epistles to a bulleted list of statements to be written on a notecard and given to the suffering soul.  I have quoted, at length, bits and pieces from the Psalter and the Christian Book of Concord.  But after all of that opining, what I am trying to gird my loins to send is the following:

The thing that I believe most folk get wrong about repentance is that they focus on man, rather than on God.  Misleading, too, is a focus on faith in repentance, for it is near impossible, it seems, for folk to talk about faith without ultimately laying the burden of the execution of that faith upon the believer.  That is a terrible, terrible burden to give a suffering soul.

Go back to the beginning.  Go back to the beginning of the true doctrine found in the Augsburg Confession and you find a curious sort of order—a profound order, really—Article One is about our Triune God and the second article is about Original Sin.  It is only after the teaching of Original Sin do we have the teaching of Jesus.  The same order, really, that you find in Genesis, the beginning of the Word of God.  You have God and then you have the sin of man—sundering the created from his Creator—and then you have the promise of man being joined with God once more.  It is paramount, to me, to always ... always ... keep in mind that second article:  we cannot [CANNOT] fear and love and trust God apart from faith.  Faith that we receive from God and faith that is sustained by God.  Thus, to talk about any part of faith, you are talking about the work of God.  Even with repentance.

The first act of repentance in the Christian's life is the reception of the repentance of Christ, usually given in baptism, though it can happen that faith may come from hearing the Word, first, and baptism to follow.  We receive repentance when we receive the gift of faith.  And that gift, once given, is nurtured and sustained and grown through the work of the Holy Spirit.  My friend Mary, when I talked with her briefly about my thoughts on repentance, put it a great way:  We teach about Jesus being our Redeemer.  We should also teach about the Holy Spirit being our Repenter.

Think about all the qualifiers associated with faith: "by" and "with" and "through" and "in."  By _____?  With _______?  Through _______?  In ______? By Christ, with Christ, through Christ, and in Christ.  Faith talk is about who we are in Christ and what we receive as the gifts of Christ.  How do we receive them?  By (with, through, and in) the Word of God and by the Sacraments, all of which are things we receive.

We receive the Word into our ears and into our eyes.  It is outside of us and comes into us.  We receive the holy water of baptism upon our skin, along with the Word in our ears.  It is outside of us and comes into us.  We receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our mouths.  It is outside of us and comes into us.  Salvation, repentance, forgiveness, justification, and sanctification all are outside of us and come into us by and with and through and in the faith of Jesus Christ given to us.

How do we receive those gifts?  Do we grab onto them and make them our own?  No, our Triune God grabs them and holds on to them for us.  The Holy Spirit is the one who hears our prayers, even our wordless groanings, and brings them to Jesus, who is ever praying to the Father on our behalf.  The Holy Spirit works the power of the Living Word into our eyes and ears, into our hearts and minds.  The Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter, does so by (with, through, and in) the gifts of Christ, by the promises of the Word, by the Gospel.

In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article Twelve, the discussion of repentance covers its two halves: contrition and faith.  Now, it is all too easy to focus on contrition, to use it as a measuring stick against repentance.  Am I being contrite enough?  However, it is important to remember that spiritual contrition cannot happen apart from faith.  Remember the lesson of original sin:  we cannot fear God (or love or trust Him) apart from faith.  We cannot see or taste or know our sin apart from the gift of faith we receive.  Faith we receive not once, but daily.  For we are daily and richly forgiven for our sins, because although we are justified and sanctified saints in Christ, we are also daily sinners in need of forgiveness and will remain so until we go home to glory.

So, really, the worry is not about how little or how great is our repentance, but how great is the repentance of Christ.  Utterly great.  Ineffably great.  For the repentance of Christ is complete in every way.

Mary noted that to repent, at its most basic definition, means to stop and turn.  Yes, we can turn away from hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacraments.  We can do that and will, ultimately, fall away from faith.  But, on the flip side, we can stop and turn to hear the Word of God and receive the Sacraments, even if we are, at the same time, mired in our struggle with sin.

That strange existence of the two Adams within us is shown so clearly throughout the Psalter.  The one who doubts and the one who trusts.  The one who wonders if God will ever return to him and the one who is certain God remains at his side.  If nowhere else, read and hear Psalm 42, the prayer given to us by God that acknowledges the despair that can grow in our souls even when we know the Truth of God.

While I was working out what I would want to hear about repentance, I heard this song whilst watching a show and was astounded to consider anew a well-known portion of Scripture.  I know nothing of the band and believe it matters not.  In my past, many bits and passages of the Bible have been used as measuring sticks, as life application guides for managing my faith.  One of them is the first half of Psalm 66:10, most commonly translated Be still and know that I am God....

How can I be still when I fear for my salvation?  How can I rest when I know my sin and doubt the sincerity of my own repentance?  How can I possibly ever do the "command" of that verse?  Well, the contemporary song I heard answers that question with the soothing, persistent, comfort of the Gospel.  Think of God speaking these words to you, through Jesus, and wrapping them around your being to hold you through the Holy Spirit:

"Be Still"

Be still and know that I'm with you
Be still and know that I am here
Be still and know that I'm with you
Be still, be still, and know

When darkness comes upon you
And covers you with fear and shame
Be still and know that I'm with you
And I will say your name

If terror falls upon your bed
And sleep no longer comes
Remember all the words I said
Be still, be still, and know

And when you go through the valley
And the shadow comes down from the hill
If morning never comes to be
Be still, be still, be still

If you forget the way to go
And lose where you came from
If no one is standing beside you
Be still and know I am

Be still and know that I'm with you
Be still and know I am

    ~The Fray

"Be still" thus, to me, is not something to do, but something to know.  To know and to remember and to have spoken to us when we struggle to remember ourselves.

God knows us.  He knows His creation.  He knows us and so sent BOTH His Son Jesus Christ to Redeem us and the Holy Spirit to Comfort us.  He knows we will have times of weakness and brokenness and become mired in the darkness that is life in a sinful world.  Because of this, God gave us His Word and in His Word lies both our repentance and our forgiveness.  In His Word, He promises not only to hear us, but also to both place the words on our lips and to give words our silent pleas.  So, let the burden of repentance and faith remain where it should, on the shoulders of Jesus Christ.  After all, His yoke is easy and His burden light.

Those are the words I long to hear.

1 comment:

Mary Jack said...

Sounds good & well articulated to me. :) Very nice.