Hurts So Good: Loving Lent for All the Wrong Reasons
This past Ash Wednesday it was. We’d all filed forward toward the pastor, who stood there with a dirty thumb upstretched, as if hitchhiking his way toward Holy Week. We all took a knee for the finger-painting rite. Every brow crisscrossed with the greyish fruit of fire.
As the liturgy unfolded, we had plenty to say about the law and sin. And we were repenting. Lord, were we repenting. More sin than you could shake a stick at. We hadn’t loved God like we should. We hadn’t loved our neighbors enough. And let me tell you, these weren’t your vanilla-flavored, every other yawning Sunday confessions. It was Ash Wednesday, so we laid it on thick, got all personal. And the thing was, I was kind of getting into it. “These confessions are good for my soul,” I said to myself. Why, I’d have probably confessed to sins I’d never even heard of before. For the more bad stuff we confessed, the worse I felt about myself; and the worse I felt about myself, the closer I felt to God.
Now you may think this reaction to confession more than a tiny bit weird, perhaps even spiritually masochistic. Okay, I’ll agree to that. But let me let you in on a little secret: there’s something inside all of us that enjoys fessing up to wrongdoing, because we assume thereby we have repaired the bridge between God and us. And we couldn’t be more wrong.
The old adage, “Confession is good for the soul,” is only half true, at best. What is confession, after all? Nothing more than telling the truth. To generically confess, “I am a sinner,” or even specifically to admit, “I’ve been stealing from my company,” is no more a profound truth than saying, “There are clouds in the sky.” These are all simple truths. To confess, in the Christian sense, is to echo God’s words, to say back to God what he has already said to you. The Lord says, “You are a sinner. You’ve sinned in these particular ways,” and we confess, “I am a sinner. I’ve sinned in these particular ways.” On Ash Wednesday, all I was doing was being honest. And while honesty is good, it does nothing to cross the chasm between me and the God against whom I have sinned. I can confess and feel terrible about my sins all day long, but none of that brings me any closer to the kind of healing I desperately need.
Confession is not good for the soul; absolution is. If confession is us telling the truth about ourselves to God, then forgiveness is God telling us a truer truth about ourselves. Confession says, “I have sinned,” but absolution says, “Your sin is no more.” But it’s better than that. Your sin doesn’t just disappear; it appears on the body of the Man who bore that sin for you. It is peeled away from you and stuck to very soul of the one who, in your stead, bore not an ashen cross upon his forehead but a cross of wood and nails of iron and thorns of piercing for you. His cross crosses the chasm between you and God. He repairs the damage. It is his confession that is good for your soul, for he confesses, “I love you. I lay down my life to save your own. I forgive you. I heal you. Mine you are, now and forever. In my scars are written the song of an undying love for you.”
As I sat in my pew on Ash Wednesday, feeling good about feeling bad, thinking that by my confession and repentance alone I was making things right between me and God, I was deeply and dangerously wrong. The cross of ashes upon my forehead pointed me, finally, to the truth, for it betokened the Christ of the cross. Because of him, and him alone, we learn to love Lent for all the right reasons, for in Jesus we are reconciled to the Father, adopted as his children, and on our brows is written the very name of the Lord himself (Revelation 22:4).