Keep Showing Up: What if repentance is more than apology?

As a little girl, I found the act of confession both comforting and disturbing. It was comforting to stand in line with my classmates and compare notes on who was apologizing for what. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who had lied to my mom.

But it was disturbing to walk into a box and talk to a window. I remember sitting on my bench, wondering if the priest let me off easy because I was a kid. Would there be an age when he would really let me have it? If so, what age was that? I needed to know so that I could work harder and be better. Then I wouldn’t have to come as often.

And so I grew up with the idea that repentance equaled words of apology.

Mess up? Say sorry. God just wants an apology.

I’m raising my fifth toddler right now and we are back in the stage of, “Seriously, Alice. That isn’t yours and that girl isn’t happy that you took it. Can you give it back to her before another mom notices you stole it? Oh, and say sorry.”

“No.”

“Alice, please say you’re sorry.”

“No!”

I whisper angry,“Say sorry or you’ll be sorry.”

“No! No! No!”

Realizing I’ve lost the battle, I take the toy, hand it back to the other child and apologize for my daughter. At that point, I’m ready to leave. I’m cashed. Toddlers are hard. But Alice? Alice continues on with life as though nothing happened. She’ll probably go find that kid again and they’ll even play together as I try to remember what brand of deodorant I bought that failed me so that I never buy it again.

Toddlers keep showing up without shame or embarrassment. Sure, they lack maturity, but there is something special there.

Two weeks ago, as I was sitting in a class talking about leadership, I realized that I’ve been doing this apology thing all wrong. I never would have known I was wrong until I saw it done right. But as soon as I realized my mistake, so many other things made sense.

Marian’s former definition of repentance: Sit with God on my office floor and try to remember yesterday. Apologize for attitudes and discontentment. Apologize for ungratefulness and anger. Apologize for not feeling so supportive. By the time all my apologies are finished, I feel totally defeated and can’t remember why I came in here to talk to God anyway, so I close with a brief Amen and save the rest for later when I’m journaling.

My office has become my own little confessional, serving as a dam—blocking all my words to God, which is remarkable, since He has created me so that words literally flow from me. So why the blockage? Why was saying, “I’m sorry” so ineffective?

If it was what God wanted, then why didn’t I feel clean and closer to him when I was finished? 

So we were talking about Peter and someone mentioned that Peter was an awesome leader because of his ability to ask for forgiveness. Sweet! I was ready to discover Peter’s eloquence of apology. If there was ever a man who has reason to apologize to God, it would be Peter, right? With all his failures, there should be a good portion of the gospels dedicated Peter’s repentance.

So where do I turn to see Peter’s first apology and request for forgiveness? 

It’s not there. 

Not one time.

Let me show you. We’re going to hit quickly on Peter’s failures:

  • In Matthew 14.28-29, Peter makes a big deal out of walking on water. He asks Jesus to ask him to walk, so Jesus does. The text says Peter “came toward Jesus.” Now I don’t know if Peter’s chest began to swell with pride or what, but Peter took his eyes off Jesus and sinks. Jesus chastises him right there forever in the gospels, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

Seriously? Jesus verbally chastised him? If I was Peter, I would have sat alone on the boat and gone home once we arrived on shore. I’d be gone.

But the next time Peter’s name shows up is in Matthew 15.15 when he says to Jesus, “Explain the parable to us.”

Peter is still there and he is still teachable.

Next failure, please.

  • When Jesus spoke of his pending suffering and death (Matt. 16.22-23), Peter pulled him aside and corrected Jesus, “No way! Not happening!”

And so Jesus calls Peter “Satan.”

I’d don’t even know what I’d do. My face would turn 10 shades of embarrassed and I never would have said anything again. Me = Satan? There’s no way I’d show back up.

But Peter does just that in Matthew 17.1. In fact, in this passage Peter has been invited by Jesus to ascend the mountain with James and John. It’s a small group and not only is Peter is still there, but he shows back up in an intimate circle.  

Speaking of Peter, he’s about to blow it again.

  • On that mountain, Jesus becomes all shiny-bright as Moses and Elijah show up. Stunning. Memorable. Peter’s watching these three men talk and is like, “Man. This is awesome. Lord, I can set some tents up if you’d like—one for each of you. We can stay. We never have to leave. This will be great. I can be back in no time.”

Right then the voice of God comes from the heavens and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

It seems like the voice of God from heaven just told Peter to shut up—in a nicer way, of course. What would I do if the voice of God from heaven basically told me to be quiet and listen? Forget the tents, I’d find a shovel and dig a hole and then I’d bury myself in it.

But Peter shows up again in Matthew 17.24 playing defense for Jesus against those trying to trap Him. 

  • Matthew 26 would be Peter’s lowest point.

In 26.36, Peter is once again part of Jesus’ inner circle and heads to the garden to pray. Jesus says his soul is overwhelmed to the point of death and then leaves them to fall facedown before the Father. When he returned, Peter was sleeping.

“Couldn’t you keep watch for an hour?” Jesus asked him.

Peter tried again, but again he was unable to keep watch and fell asleep.

When the company of soldiers arrives to arrest Jesus, Peter is finally alert and ready to fight. Matthew 26.51 says one of Jesus’ companions took out a sword and cut off a guard’s ear as they came to arrest Jesus. The gospel of John tells us that companion is Peter. The last words Jesus says to Peter before his death are these: Those who draw the sword will die by the sword. Another rebuke; another correction.

Still Peter follows Jesus down the path toward pain. 

The next time we encounter Peter, he is in the courtyard of the high priest, being questioned by some onlookers. Was he with Jesus?

No way. I have no idea what you are talking about.

And he denies all that has happened in his life over the last three years—not once, but three times.

When Peter realizes what he’s done, we finally, finally, get to see him react: “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (26.75).

This last verse is the first time we see Peter acknowledge his mistake. It’s the first time we see remorse or sadness or a sense of failure. And yet, there aren’t any words recorded, are there?

Here is the traditional definition of what it means to repent:

  1. To feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.
  2. To view or think of an action (or omission) with deep regret or remorse.
  3. To feel regret or penitence about.

Perhaps this was the first time Peter felt any remorse about any of his foolishness. Perhaps Jesus knew the way Peter dealt with mistakes would lead Peter into the arena of denial.

There is so much we don’t know about the emotions and thoughts of these men and that is likely a very female thing to desire from the gospels, but…

We do know Peter kept showing up. Throughout the entirety of this gospel, if there is any behavior we can observe from Peter it is this: Personal failure did not affect his posture before Jesus.

Sink like a rock? I, Cephas, am still following you.

Try to distract you from God’s plan? I’m still here, Jesus, hungry to learn until I understand.

What was that? I talk more than I listen? You’re right. You’re right. I’ll fix that. I’ll go and I’ll keep asking questions and listening to those answers until…. {It’s no wonder Peter was the first person in Acts to give a public speech, right?}

When it come to Peter’s style of repentance we read nothing of what Peter said and only what Peter did.

Peter kept showing up. Embarrassment could not keep him away from Jesus. Shame, rebuke, chastisement, and failure did nothing except drive Peter toward God.

Isn’t that amazing? What if my mistakes and failures didn’t close me up in a confessional office, but drove me further into God’s desire for my life?

Which I think is coming to the heart of God’s real motive behind repentance: A few brief words of apology do not change the direction of my feet. Only when I see Jesus on the move and chase after him—regardless of embarrassment or sense of failure—am I doing something to alter the course I am on. It is in the pursuit that my path changes.

To repent. To change direction.

It has very little to do with an apology and everything to do with my answer to this question: Where will I keep showing up?

So what becomes of Peter after his bitter weeping?

The gospels of Luke and John tell us that, when Peter hears the tomb was empty, he got up and ran. He raced another disciple and, in true Peter style, he came in second. Once there, he stepped in and saw the strips of cloth and wondered what had happened.

Later, as he was fishing, someone called out to him from the shore. Peter’s recognition was immediate. Half-naked, he quickly wraps himself in his clothes and jumps overboard.

Before Jesus called to him from the shore, Peter had gone back to life as he knew it. The old normal became the new normal again. But as soon as Jesus showed up—as soon as Peter’s name traveled across the water—Peter was ready to change directions. Peter was ready to show back up. Peter was ready to follow.

This beach is where the famous conversation takes place between Jesus and Peter. Again, we have no record of Peter apologizing with words. We just see his response to the most important question of all time, “Peter, do you love Me?”

So even though we never hear an apology from Peter’s lips, I still agree that Peter’s most remarkable trait is his ability to seek forgiveness. And he does this by showing up. Again and again, Peter shows up.

He always places himself alongside Jesus. If the goal of repentance is right-standing before God, then I think Peter nailed it. Which makes me think that repentance truly is more than words.

Repentance is showing up went it’s hard.

Repentance is placing myself before God even when I feel I have failed Him.

Repentance is an appetite to learn how to do it differently next time.

Repentance is throwing myself overboard–abandoning normal–because I see Jesus on shore.

So maybe words of apology don’t have to be part of my office prayers. Maybe I’m free to just show up to pray. Maybe it’s okay if all I can tell God is that I love him, deeply, and I will keep showing up. I will keep coming back to this place. Because continuing to place myself before God, knowing that my mistakes will not remove His desire to keep teaching me and shaping me and leading me, creates a huge space of intimacy in our relationship.

It’s a new, old way of repentance. I’ll show up and I’ll follow and Jesus can lead me a new direction.

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One thought on “Keep Showing Up: What if repentance is more than apology?

  1. Wow. This is so good. (as always, you help me grow!) As one who has spent hours apologizing to God, thank you so much for writing this.

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