Repentance is hard. As a child, when I did something wrong, my parents would make me go to the person and apologize. I would walk up to the offended party and reluctantly say “I’m sorry.”
Truth is, I was rarely sorry, and I was probably going to commit the same offense again.
Saying “I’m sorry” alone is not repentance, but it shows how difficult repentance can be.
Repentance forces us to go beyond acknowledgment of harm. That is just the beginning of repentance. We also must be willing to stop the harm, prevent future harm and repay for the harm that has been done.
Sometimes repentance is hard because we do not think we have done anything wrong. At other times, it is hard because it is embarrassing to admit we were wrong.
Finally, and possibly most difficult, repentance is hard because it requires change. It requires us to turn away from the wrongs we have done and make a conscious effort to do something different. It requires reconciliation and reparations.
It is hard to embrace the change that is needed.
Currently, there is a call for repentance in the United States. There is a call to acknowledge the harms done in the nation and in our churches — harms of racism, sexism, economic injustice. There is a call to do whatever we can to make things right for those who have been oppressed. There is a call for systemic change within the country, our organizations and our churches.
This can be a daunting task. It requires us to humble ourselves and admit we have not always been our best selves. It requires us to change the ways we have been doing things for so long.
But is not change a part of Christian life?
Throughout the Bible, God calls people to embrace change for justice. God calls people to repentance and to turn away from the oppression they have caused.
One of my favorite stories of repentance is found in the Book of Jonah. Jonah is tasked with traveling to Nineveh to warn the people of their coming destruction. Jonah spends a day walking across the city exclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
When the people hear this, they go into full repentance mode. They proclaim a fast, and everyone, including the animals, puts on sackcloth as a sign of repentance. The king declares, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8).
God responds to the Ninevites’ repentance with mercy. Since the people turn away from the oppression they were causing, God relents from anger against them.
This is what repentance looks like. Repentance is not simply saying we are sorry. It is committing to making things right. The people of Nineveh humbled themselves by donning sackcloth. To avert God’s anger, they needed to end the violence they were causing.
We as Christians today must be willing to answer this call to repentance. We must embrace the calls for change, because we are guilty of perpetuating violence. Our repentance begins with acknowledging that something is wrong and that we have been a part of it — whether as active participants or as bystanders.
Repentance also includes changing what we are doing. Once we have acknowledged the harm done, we must commit to doing something different.
Right now, as always, the oppressed are calling out for their oppressors to repent. The good news is that it is never too late to repent and to try to make things right. We have an opportunity to listen, work with and be with the oppressed in our communities.
What will our repentance look like? Maybe it is doing antiracism work. Maybe supporting survivors of abuse.
However it may look, we must answer the call of our modern prophets.
Like the king of Nineveh said: Who knows? Maybe we can turn things around and truly become the people God has called us to be.