When my marriage was at its worst, I struggled deeply with the idea of having kids. I couldn’t see any way that I would be able to have children, raise them, and then expect them not to spend their inheritance on extensive therapy. I was so afraid of messing up a small human. So afraid that all my bad traits would be sucked out of me, cloned and then injected into an innocent, unsuspecting baby. What would I do when I made mistakes? What would I do when I failed to be patient or understanding? What would I do when my kid cried because I emotionally wounded her? Brett and I attended an intensive counseling week with the hopes of learning how to emotionally support one another. After a solid week of crying and spending what felt like 3 million dollars on counseling, I realized the key to both marriage and parenting: repentance. I’m going to make mistakes. My kids will probably be in counseling. Trying not to make mistakes is a horrible goal. I can’t love if I’m focused on not messing up. Instead, I need to be willing to take responsibility, to admit when I’ve done something less than honest, to be upfront instead of passive. If I was going to have kids, I’d have to get used to saying “I’m sorry.”
Confession and repentance pave the path of human relationships. It’s the only way we make it to the next landmark. It’s the only way we have any kind of deep connections. It isn’t about how many times I take my kids to Chuck E. Cheese or how many times I control my temper. The path of parenting calls me to a life of continually turning away from self-absorption and moving toward a God-grounded love. The sacred journey of any relationship can only be made with consistent acts of repentance.
What I learned at the intensive counseling week broke open the truth of Matthew 3. I’d never really understood it before. John the Baptist is baptizing lines of people in the Jordan. The Pharisees and Sadducees come up to be baptized. John rails them, calling them a brood of vipers and asking who warned them of the wrath to come. Then he says to them, “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” It’s not enough that they claim the heritage of Abraham. It’s not enough that they walked down the aisle as 8 year olds. It’s not enough that they were born into a God-fearing home. Bearing fruit, living well, holiness—these are found in repentance.
Repentance is that act of saying sorry, but it’s more than that. It’s a forward movement. It’s the confession of what I’ve done wrong and the willingness to turn back to Jesus. To repent is literally to turn again. To return to our first love, to re-look to Jesus. Repentance is returning to the sacred path to which we’ve been called.
We will mess up. We will fail. We won’t always obey. And the goal is not to avoid mistakes. The goal is to follow. And the only way to follow is to continually re-fix our gaze, re-direct our steps, re-turn and re-focus.
The call to repentance must have shocked the Pharisees and Sadducees. Certainly bearing fruit looked like acts of kindness, works of righteousness, taking care of the poor, praying in public and in private, avoiding lust and greed. And then John the Baptist simplifies and complicates their religious world in one short command:
Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Bearing fruit is not the result of doing good things or exercising tangible holiness—bearing fruit is found in a continual turning of one’s heart, mind, will and life toward God.
It’s the process of becoming. Repentance is the way in which we move forward. Repentance is the breath of discipleship.
Jesus came announcing this life of returning. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” “Come back! Look at me! And in doing so, see the kingdom.”
We’ve complicated the art of following Jesus. We’ve stifled the soul of discipleship by trying to serve instead of follow. We decide it’s more important to help with VBS or share the plan of salvation than it is to admit we’ve fallen into pride or hate. We’ve taken the frame of discipleship and stuffed it full of concepts that are made in our own image. Jesus asks us to look to him. It’s the only way we can follow. It’s the only way we know where we’re going next. Repentance is the only way we will know who we are and who we are becoming.
Ellia reminded me this week what my parenting is all about. I came to her, admitting I was wrong in the way I’d spoken to her father. She said, “Mommy, you have to say you’re sorry a lot!”
Repentance keeps us afloat. It reminds us we can keep going despite our guilt and despair, even if we have to say we’re sorry a lot.