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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Whatever Happened to Repentance?
We’ve come to think our faith is about comfort. It’s not.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is an author, columnist, and commentator, who serves on a range of advisory and editorial boards. She can be heard on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

Forget what the Billboard charts say—to judge from church ads in the Yellow Pages, America’s favorite song is “I’m Mr. Lonely.” Churches are quick to spot that need and promise eagerly that they will be friendly, or be family, or just care. Apparently this is the Church’s principal product. When people need tires, they look up a tire store; when they start having those bad-sad-mad feelings, they shop for a church.

Here, for once, denominational and political divisions vanish. Churches across the spectrum compete to display their capacity for caring, though each has its own way of making the pitch. The Tabernacle, a “spirit-filled, multi-cultured church,” pleads, “Come let us love you,” while the Bible Way Temple is more formal, if not downright odd: “A church where no stranger need feel strangely.” (The only response that comes to mind is “Thank thee.”) One church sign in South Carolina announced, “Where Jesus is Lord and everybody is special,” which made it sound like second prize. And one Methodist congregation tries to get it all in: “A Christ-centered church where you can make new friends and form lasting relationships with people who care about you.”

But when Jesus preached, He did not spend a lot of time on “caring.” The first time we see Him, in the first Gospel, the first instruction He gives is “Repent” (Mark 1:15). From then on, it’s His most consistent message. Yes, He spoke words of comfort like “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28). But much more frequently He challenged His hearers, urging them to turn to God in humility and admit their sins. Even when told of a tragedy that caused many deaths, He repeated this difficult theme: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

We love the caring sayings of Jesus. We repeat them often, paste them onto felt banners, and print them on refrigerator magnets. We mostly ignore those on repentance.

We live in a time when it’s hard to talk about Christian faith at all, much less awkward topics like repentance. (No era finds repentance easy, but many have found it easier to talk about.) Paradoxically, we live in a very easy time. We are the wealthiest, healthiest, most comfortable generation in history. With less to struggle for, we become increasingly oriented toward pleasure. This all-too-natural inclination is what most unites us. America is a place of wild diversity, but we all meet at the shopping mall.

We’re confirmed in this quest for comfort by a ceaseless stream of advertising messages. These tell us who we are: special, precious people with no faults, who deserve to feel better than we do. Ads tell us, “Your wife (boss, teenager, classmate) doesn’t understand you, but we do. Here, buy this, and you’ll feel better.” Advertising invites us to be big babies—an invitation that fallen human nature has always found hard to resist.

Try telling a person who’s been discipled by advertising that he’s a sinner. A hundred years ago, a preacher would have seen heads nod in recognition at that familiar concept. But today’s consumer is likely to be shocked and baffled. How could he be a sinner? All he knows is that he’s unhappy because he does not have his fair share of stuff, and he isn’t appreciated enough by those around him. Original sin? He will readily agree that everyone else keeps letting him down. That he’s estranged from the one, holy God and needs to be reconciled? He’s likely to respond, “So who’s this God who thinks He’s better than us?” Bring up Judgment Day, and you’ll get to see someone genuinely appalled; the very idea just sounds so “judgmental.”

In trying to reach this seeker, the Church has been given a severely reduced pack of options. Since people are aware only of seeking comfort, it looks like that’s what we have to headline in any message we send. Neither this need, nor our response, is untrue. A profound sense of unease and dislocation is indeed part of the human condition, because sin has estranged us from God. And the Church has the only authentic solution to this problem, because we bear the Good News of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.

The problem comes when we never get around to talking about the hard part of the Good News. The problem can even be that we start forgetting it ourselves, and start believing that consolation is the main reason Jesus came. But what’s wrong with us required much more than a hug; it required the Cross. It doesn’t seem this way; we too, have been catechized by the world and reflexively think of ourselves as needy, wronged children. We’d rather feel as if we’re victims of a cruel world than admit we are contributors to the world’s cruelty, lost sinners who perversely love our lostness, clinging to our treasured sins like a drowning man to an anvil.

How bizarre such language seems today. We look around our neighborhood and our congregation and everyone seems so “nice.” We know what really wicked people are like—we see them in the papers every day—and we’re not like that. God must find us, in comparison, quite endearing. And of course He knows the hurts we bear deep inside, and anyone who’s been hurt can’t be bad (I call this the “victims are sinless” fallacy). With these and a thousand other sweet murmurs, we shield ourselves from our real condition and remain Christian babies all our lives: pampered, ineffective, whiney, and numb. 

Jesus didn’t come just to save us from the penalty for our sins; He came to save us from our sins—now, today, if we will only respond to the challenge and let Him. A nation of grownup Christians, courageous, confident, humble, and holy, would be more compelling than any smiley-face ad campaign. The Lord does not love us for our good parts and pass over the rest. He died for the bad parts and will not rest until they are put right. We must stop thinking of God as infinitely indulgent. We must begin to grapple with the scary and exhilarating truth that He is infinitely holy, and that He wants the same for us.