When I was younger, repentance was a burden I could not get off my shoulders no matter how many times I tried to "leave it at the foot of the cross." I never felt relieved like they promised I would. I was never good enough, never holy enough, never thin enough, never smart enough, never strong enough—not for my friends, not for my parents, not for boys, and especially not for my God. I think it was partially a bit of undiagnosed anxiety, but it was also that insidious reformed idea that has crept down into so many of our churches through time, that we humans are worms, unloveable wretches, not even worthy to be crushed underneath God's shoe.
For me, repentance was a form of trauma bonding with the Divine.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
And done what is evil in your sight;
So you are right in your verdict
And justified when you judge.
I thought that verse was about how I let a guy put his arm around me while we were taking a walk on a youth group retreat. I was so weak. So sinful. So entrenched in the desires of my flesh. Not only that, but I was a liar. I had promised to have no romantic physical contact with a man until I was engaged, and I had broken that promise. My word was as good as useless.
And so on and so on.
Life has flattened out my fundamentalist fervor a little bit since then, and I know the difference now between legitimate remorse and shame and anxiety.
But I still catch myself sometimes. I still catch myself believing that God is up in heaven just waiting for me to screw up so he can smash me with a giant holy hammer and give me everything I deserve. I still catch myself cowering in fear because grace is enough to get me out of hell but grace does not mean that God isn't going to punish me with in an inch of my life.
Do not cast me from your presence,
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
I really believed he might. Sometimes I still do.
Because the easy Christianity of my youth was reducible to a list of things one must avoid in order to please God: don't drink, don't smoke, don't swear, don't express your sexuality, don't watch R-rated movies, don't vote Democrat, don't miss church. And if you fail, feel really bad about it; but if you succeed, you can sleep at night knowing that God is happy with you. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Now that I know Christianity isn't about those things… I'm not always sure what it is about.
But whose interpretation of Jesus? The Jesus who has radical and unconditional compassion on the poor and the fatherless and the widowed and the oppressed and the marginalized and yes, even the sinners? Or the Jesus of the modern-day Pharisees, who mysteriously ends up being in favor of all of our behavior and hating all the same people we hate? Who's to say they don't have him right?
You can drive yourself crazy with these questions. I have.
So when the somber hymn is played, when the kneelers are lowered, when the rector begins, "Let us confess our sins against God and neighbor," all I can think of are my supposed transgressions of old, easy Christianity. There's no room to meditate on the things I do that truly grieve the heart of God—the way I move through life primarily concerned with myself and my pleasure, the blind eye I regularly turn to the poor and the needy around me, the judgement and disdain and fear I harbor in my heart towards others to the point that I can no longer detect the image of God in them. Those are the things that should come to mind when I am on my knees before God, and instead I'm reliving my 14-year-old anguish, wondering if God is still going to love me now that I let a boy put his arm around me and how I'm going to explain this to my future husband.
So for Lent, I'm repenting of repenting for things I don't need to repent for.
I'm repenting of viewing God as a vindictive monster waiting to smite me for the smallest misstep.
I'm repenting of old, easy Christianity.
And I'm taking the first step towards something new. I'm shedding the beliefs that lead nowhere but down to despair and finding the yoke to be very light indeed. I'm systematically smashing my idols of "god" in an attempt to encounter the living Christ and hoping against all hope that he is really as good as I have been told that he is.
A broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.