Whenever I go past the StaplesCenter in LA and there is some kind of event going on, I inevitably see signs that tell me to repent. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Maybe just “Sinners, repent.”
I’m not really sure what the uber-Christians have against the Lakers, but it must be something severe, because their signs never fail to seem threatening. The intent seems to be to make the rest of us feel guilty and more than a little scared—as we either quietly going about our lives running errands and carrying heavy groceries or else off for a well-earned night of fun on the town.
God will come soon. And he isn’t going to like what he sees. Be afraid.
That’s the message. I have to admit I am not a fan.
However, I think they’ve gotten things a little mixed up. Or at the very least that there is another way of looking at this.
I have to admit, in writing this, that I am not a Christian. I do not actually believe that there was a Christ who died for our sins. So, this is not a post written by one of the faithful. It is a post written by someone who thinks that, like other religions, Christianity has something to offer. If this offends you, I suggest you stop reading here and find something else to read that it is more to your taste.
Since you are still here, I assume it’s because you aren’t offended and you are all ears.
Specifically, what Christianity has to offer comes through the story of this Christ that I don’t believe in. You may find that odd. Here I am saying, “I don’t believe it’s true,” and at the same time, “I think there’s something to be learned here. Let’s look at this story. It’s a good one, and it has some important and helpful things to tell us.”
But if you’re finding it odd, that’s probably because you don’t see the human mind in the same way I do. Stories are a part of the way we come to understand things. They are a part of the way we, both as individuals and as entire societies, remember and communicate important ideas and events.
For example, I have a wonderful teacher friend who explains how to solve an equation to her struggling math students through a long complex description of a bad breakup. The breakup never really happened—it’s a made-up story—but it is, in fact, how to solve an equation. The story, although it is made-up, helps. Her students can solve equations.
The same thing is true in my mind about Christ. I don’t believe that the Son of God ever came down to this earth and died for our sins—although it doesn’t disturb me if you do—but I do think what is revealed in that story of his coming might very well be true. At the very least, it’s worth considering.
But first we need to break down this idea of repentance, because while the uber-Christians at the Lakers games scare the pants off me, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is not a phrase they made up all on their own. Christ isn’t credited with this little instruction, but John the Baptist is, and he seemed to know what was what.
So, what is repentance? You can tell me in the comments what you think about that. I’d like to know.
In the meantime, I’ll tell you what I think. Repentance has three parts to it: 1) an understanding in your own mind that you have done something wrong, 2) an earnest desire not to do it again, and 3) an attempt to make things right again.
If you’ve gone through a 12-step program, then you know all about repentance. You’ve done a lot of repenting. You’ve taken an inventory of your shortcomings and personal failings, you’ve thought about the people you harmed, and you’ve done your best to make amends.
There’s a reason for this. It’s not arbitrary. Repentance frees us.
And that’s what Christianity has to offer—among some other things. It says, “Christ will set you free.” This is one way that Christ can. Because, while I don’t think religion is intended to be done like a paint-by-number, I am a math teacher and I do tend to understand things as processes.
I can see a method here.
All of us do and say things that are insensitive, hurtful, selfish, rash, unwise, unkind, ungenerous. If you want to call it “sin” when you do those things, then we’re definitely all sinners by nature.
So this is the method: acknowledge in your own mind what you have done wrong, attempt not to do it again (usually easier said than done, but give it a go anyway), and do what you can to make things right again.
That’s repentance. It’s not really very hard, is it? Most of us do that.
It’s the second part that’s harder. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What does that mean? Well, it could mean that God has shown up and intends to judge everyone right here and now. But that’s not very interesting. People have been thinking that God will judge you at the end of your life for quite a long time—a lot longer than people have believed in Jesus. The Egyptians thought your heart would be weighed on a scale. The only innovation here with Christianity is that judgment might come while you’re still alive. Which actually is pretty scary. And not very inspiring.
And the story of Christ was innovative. It captured the imagination of a great part of the world remarkably quickly. I have my doubts that that happened solely because people were so excited that they could find themselves sentenced to a lake of fire to burn for eternity at any moment instead of only after death. I think there’s got to be something more to it.
That “something else” was forgiveness. Like understanding that the world is indeed round and that light behaves both as energy and as matter, the idea of forgiveness changed the foundations of Western civilization. It made possible a different kind of justice: instead of punishment for wrong-doing—hanging, stoning, flogging, execution—it suggested restorative justice. We still don’t seem to have gotten our heads around this, but let’s keep trying, shall we? It might turn out to be worth doing.
Christ came not to judge us, but to forgive us. And the door to forgiveness is repentance. “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Kingdom of Heaven is forgiveness. It has to be. None of our heart are lighter than feathers.
Without forgiveness, there isn’t much of a reason to repent, is there? I mean, if God is keeping track of these things, it’s not like he’s going to forget. Whatever you’ve done will still be on your record. Just as they say in school. “This will go on your permanent record.” And when the time comes, you’ll still have to pay for it.
But Christ said, “It can go away. I can wipe this out for you. You just need to do one thing.”
He wasn’t asking for a kick-back. He wanted us to start trying to make things right again when we screw things up and, you know, try not to keep doing it.