Before becoming a priest—and eventually the Bishop of New York—my friend Andy Dietsche drew cartoons for a living. And I do mean that he drew. By hand. Using pen and ink.
Describing the creative process, Andy said that at the very moment you touch pen to paper, you’re committed. You’ve made a mark that you cannot erase. So I imagined that a waste bin filled with crumpled-up false starts sat next to his drawing desk.
But what he said next did more than correct my misperception of the cartoonist’s art. It adjusted my view of where and how grace weaves our past into our ongoing lives. Andy explained that the art of drawing cartoons is learning to incorporate your mistakes into the picture as you’re drawing it.
Arriving at a completed image is not about erasing your mistakes. It’s about continuing to draw in such a way that you make something meaningful from those mistakes.
When we cooperate with grace, living resembles the process of drawing. Paradoxically, the beauty, goodness, wholeness, and holiness of our lives incorporate and even emerge from the mistakes we have made and the disfiguring marks left on our lives by the mistakes that others have made.
“Repentance” is the word Christians frequently use to refer to how we cooperate with grace. Unfortunately, many of us have come to understand the meaning of that word too narrowly. That’s largely because our concept of God is too cramped.
Even a deeply faithful person like John the Baptist eventually changed his mind about God. That’s because he encountered Jesus.
John’s ministry centered on preparing people for the coming of the Messiah. With the Messiah, God would restore justice once and for all. From John’s perspective, this meant that God would make things right by rendering wrathful judgment.
John baptized with water to symbolize repentance. By contrast, the Messiah will baptize with Spirt and fire. God will separate the wheat from the chaff, gathering in the wheat and burning the chaff.
Most of us have heard this sort of thing before. God judges sin, rewarding the righteous and punishing the sinful. God’s wrath—the Messiah’s fire—will finally purge the world of the wicked and reward the just. To avoid the flames, sinners must repent. Once we’ve repented, God will no longer hold our sins against us.
In other words, the Baptist perceives God’s saving work through the narrow lens of punishment and reward. No wonder Jesus thoroughly confused him.
John the Baptist assumed that God says, “If you repent, I won’t hold your mistakes against you.” In other words, God will erase our mistakes and let us start over once we’ve repented.
But his observations of Jesus gradually led the Baptist to rethink things.
After Herod had tossed him into the royal dungeon, John wrestled with who his cousin Jesus actually was. “Is he the one? Is he the Messiah? But he doesn’t act like a Messiah. Or else, maybe I need to rethink what the Messiah will be like. Maybe I need to rethink what God is like.”
So, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus straight up. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:20b)
Jesus came to show us who God really is. That’s why he said this to John’s disciples:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Luke 7:22-23)
Jesus did not come to make sinners pay and to hand out gold stars to the world’s spiritual superstars. Jesus came to mend a shattered world.
In Jesus God responds not only to the immoral conduct of individuals but also to suffering, sorrow, and injustice. To sickness, poverty, hunger, and loneliness. In Jesus God embraces the world we actually inhabit and makes it whole again by the power of love.
Each day we are drafting our messy life. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve inherited or suffered from the mistakes of others. And as it turns out, the picture we are drawing is more than a self-portrait. Whether we realize it or not, together we are all drawing the great mural of humankind. Of the entire creation.
God joins us in the midst of this grand drawing project. In Jesus we see that God does not toss our mistakes into a cosmic waste bin. Instead, God says, “Let’s see what we can make of this together. I think it can be something beautiful.”
That’s what grace looks like. And repentance is having the humility to cooperate with it.