Next Wednesday, of course, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And Lent is one of those seasons that feature two words that many modern (post-modern?) people don’t like to think about too much: “sin” and “repentance”. “Sin” simply has gone out of fashion, for it seems hopelessly attached to a theological perspective that focuses on how bad human beings are, how unworthy human beings are, and how amazing it is that God tolerates us at all. “Sin”, for so many people, I think, brings to mind lists of rules to be followed and the inevitable divine punishment that will come when God looks us over with that list in mind. There is no question that certain forms of Christianity over the centuries have contributed to this sense of “sin” as primarily a measure of human moral depravity. And, frankly, most of us just aren’t buying it anymore.
As for “repentance” – well, most of us probably aren’t quite sure what it means, but it is certainly tied to “sin”, and seems to have something to do with how sorry we should be about exactly how sinful we are. And, frankly, we aren’t buying that, either.
It is unfortunate that “sin” and “repentance” have lost their theological credibility for so many people, because in their original context, they are words that represent ideas that our key to our spiritual lives. Far from being words that condemn us for our unworthiness and emphasize how much we deserve God’s punishment, their entrance into the Christian vocabulary was motivated by a profound understanding of God’s love for humanity, and as concepts, their value was seen chiefly as therapeutic.
The Greek word which we translate as “sin” is the word “hamartia”, which means “to miss the mark”. When you think about it, this is a much more gentle definition than the one we usually have in mind when it comes to “sin”. For me, the image of an archer comes to mind, carefully fitting the arrow into her bow, and releasing it to fly toward the target. If she is a novice archer, she will most likely not hit the bullseye. In other words, she will miss the mark. As she becomes more comfortable with the bow, however, and as she acquires greater skill, she will hit the bullseye much more frequently. The same thing is true about our own spiritual practice (and, let me say, that everything about being human is, in the end, a spiritual practice). We are not always skillful about being truly human and we are not always skillful in the use of the spiritual tools we have at our disposal. Thus, we sometimes (or often!) miss the mark. Sin, when thought of in this way, ceases to be an occasion for wallowing in our own unworthiness, and instead becomes a call to greater skillfulness in living our lives and using the spiritual tools available to us.
This recognition leads us to repentance, but not in the sense of feeling terribly sorry (or terrible and sorry) about the way in which we have missed the mark. The Greek word we are translating as repentance is “metanoia”, which means to have a second thought, to think about something after the fact and change one’s mind, to head out in a new direction. Repentance is the simple recognition that we have missed the mark somehow, coupled with the resolve and determination to try to be more skillful as human beings and in the use of our spiritual tools – always, of course, with the help of God.
If we think of sin and repentance in these ways, in appreciation of their original Greek definitions, then it becomes easier to see how it is that certain strands of the Christian tradition have viewed them as a framework for a kind of spiritual therapy. The skillful use of these terms does not lead us to wallow in our own unworthiness, but rather helps us to see more clearly and honestly where it is that we are missing the mark and how it is that we can try hitting the mark more often. Just as a good psychotherapist will help us to see ourselves more honestly, yet with compassion, so the deeper tradition behind the language of sin and repentance seeks to encourage us toward a more honest appraisal of ourselves, always in a spirit of compassion, coupled with the humility to realize that becoming more skillful human beings requires a reliance on God’s grace and love. Of course, the Christian tradition has also tended to maintain that we will never be perfectly skillful; that is, we will not hit the mark every single time. And that also raises our reliance on God’s grace and love, to fill the gap.
So as the season of Lent envelopes us next week, I encourage you not to dismiss the ideas and language of sin and repentance as out of fashion, as things which belong to another era and someone else’s theology, but to truly embrace them in their proper spirit, recognizing their therapeutic value in helping us to see ourselves honestly and authentically, and leading us to a deeper resolve to live our lives more skillfully, and to employ to greater effect the spiritual tools we have at our disposal. And, always confident in the love and grace of God.