The book I use for daily prayer, The Divine Hours, includes a lot of confessions, like this classic: Almighty God, my heavenly Father: I have sinned against you, through my own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what I have left undone.
I wince almost every time I read this prayer.
It’s cliché to wince at repentance, of course. We’re sinners, so of course we balk at kneeling. It’s why repentance is so necessary.
But my wincing feels different. (Is this self-delusion?)
I wince at repentance because I feel like I’ve repented too much. Repented for sins that weren’t mine to bear. Shamed myself for brokenness that I wasn’t responsible for.
To give a petite for-instance, I was involved in a campus ministry through college that was not a good fit for me. From the start, I didn’t like their views on women. I didn’t like their style of evangelism. I shoehorned myself into fitting into that fellowship for four years because—well, partially because I was afraid and lonely.
But also? There was a lot of pressure to shoehorn myself. A lot of pressure. From lovely, well-meaning people. But pressure nonetheless.
For a long time, I berated myself for not being strong enough to resist the pressure. For going along with something I disliked. For allowing my faith to be damaged by four years of conformity.
But the people exerting pressure on me, however well-intentioned, had more power than I did. I didn’t have a lot of strength at that point of my life to resist. (And thanks be to God—I’ve sought one of them out, and she and I were able to figure out what happened, and why, and she apologized for pressure that she did not intend).
But for a long time, I thought I was the only one to blame. Blaming myself has injured me. That’s why I wince at repentance.
I repent for others’ sins because I struggle with a kind of moral perfectionism. Some people have called it scrupulosity—an anxious internal pursuit of righteousness.
I assume every sin can be laid at my own door. That means I’m too ready to explain away others’ sin against me, and swallow toxicity whole.
Scrupulosity means I use repentance to cudgel myself. I twist confession into a shame-fest. I blame myself for everything, and my spirit is ready for me to stop.
In other words, I need to repent for using repentance against myself. I know this.
But sometimes, I see confessions, and I want to not have feel scrupulous any more. To just relax. To not be slave to this internal moral abacus of mine.
Sometimes, I am tired of groveling.
Lately, I’ve been wondering, though, if thinking of repentance as groveling is the whole problem. Maybe, instead, repentance about honesty. About crying for help. Maybe repentance is a hand lifting my face out of the mud, not pushing it deeper in.
When I pray about what I have done, what I have left undone, I remind myself that the whole point is that—blame whoever you want—I am in bondage. Often, I am in bondage to myself, and confession helps set me free from my hand-made chains. Confession is not saying yes to shame. Repentance is not turning towards self-loathing.
Can I confess to you that I find this very hard to believe?
I am trying to re-learn how to repent. I’m trying to trust Jesus when he describes it as a return home to a beloved parent. As a rejoicing of angels. As saving, as help, as rescue.
I trying to believe that every time I repent, a door to heaven opens in my heart—and I’m given a warm welcome into freedom.
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