Despite the heat and humidity of late-July Florida, I strapped on my shoes for an afternoon run. The relief of getting out of the house and capturing a few quiet minutes on my own outweighed the threat of heat stroke.
Andrew, our firstborn, was just a few weeks old. My wife, Joy, had taken maternity leave from her public radio job and since I was on a college faculty, my summer months were my own to structure. So we both spent the first days of Andrew’s life sharing his every gassy smile, dirty diaper, and middle-of-the-night feeding. A combination of sleep deprivation and cabin fever was tipping each of us toward new-baby psychosis. So when Joy said, “Jake, I think you need to get out the house. For all our sakes,” I jumped at it.
At about the half-mile mark, I’m sure I looked a fright. My heart rate and breathing had evened out, but my face was flushed and sweat had saturated my t-shirt and shorts. One of my older neighbors was shuffling toward his mailbox. As I ran by, he said, “What on earth are you doing?”
I responded, “I’m running from my past.”
Pretty clever, right? It seemed funny at the moment. But the phrase kept turning around in my mind. I’m running from my past. Am I running from my past? What am I running from?
At the time, I was just at the beginning of my professional career, straining to establish myself as an expert in an academic field. New parent- hood was stretching not only my sense of self but also who Joy and I were to each other as friends and lovers. Challenges of the heart and professional growth were exactly what I had signed up for. My days were rewarding and the future looked promising. Well, mostly. As I was coming to the end of my run, another truth emerged with wrenching clarity. Some of the defining memories of my life were breaking my heart, disrupting my relationships, and dragging me into bouts of shame and sorrow. I couldn’t just leave those experiences behind; I was going to have to grow beyond them.
Up to this point I had spent my life pushing ahead, as if a new life as husband, father, and philosophy professor would in time diminish the power of these painful memories. Maybe I could just start over and escape all those old wounds. But now, I was beginning to admit that simply moving on was out of the question. After all, unless injury or disease destroyed my memory, my past was going to follow me wherever I went.
Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity. Just ask somebody to tell you who they are. I mean, who they really are. Once they get beyond telling you that they’re a doctor or a law- yer or a machinist, stories about kids or grandkids often follow. Dig a little deeper and they’ll start telling you personal stories. They will share their memories with you. They will piece together their past in a way that makes sense to them and that they hope will be acceptable to somebody else.
On a résumé, we can cherry-pick the flattering bits of our experience. We’re out to make an impression, to land a job. Nobody lists their biggest flops or most embarrassing missteps. We omit the messy parts of our lives. Coming to terms with our past does not resemble resume-building. We have to be honest with ourselves about everything. Especially the stuff that can still shatter us, enrage us, flatten us, and make us wince. Like many faith traditions, Christians have realized this for eons. And we’ve experi- enced that processing our memories is most effective when we do it with another. For us, coming to terms with our past is done best with Christ.
Jesus-followers usually call this repentance. And I’m going to use that word, too. But before I do, I want to help us recover a depth and breadth of the spiritual practice that Jesus had in mind. Like many of my fellow Christians, I once assumed that repentance focused narrowly on sins. The process went something like this: Admit that you’ve gone the wrong way, stop where you are, turn around, and get back on the right road. God blots out what you’ve done in the past and grants you a sort of do-over. God won’t hold your past against you.
I’ve confessed some real doozies. Before taking the run that day, I had received absolution for things done and things left undone more times than I can count. As advertised, confession brought relief from my feelings of guilt. But remorse about my past wasn’t the defining problem; I was wounded by my past. I was wounded by abuse, neglect, and exploitation. I needed to find a way to die to the person whose life was shaped by this pain and sorrow in order for a new self to emerge from them…..
What I’ve come to believe is that repentance is precisely what I needed, and what I still need. I needed to learn, however, that repentance is more than a sin-cancelling transaction. When we repent, we admit that the sorrows, the losses, the wounds, the betrayals, and the regrets of our past have made us into someone we don’t want to be anymore. We die to that self and entrust ourselves to Jesus. From those shattered places in our lives, Christ brings new life; to put it another way: repentance is the beginning of our resurrection. Right here on planet Earth.
Look at the story about Jesus’s call of the first disciples. Jesus was strolling along the shore. He saw two sets of fishermen: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Jesus invited them to follow him with the odd promise to transform them from fishermen into fishers of people (Mark 1:16-20). The ordinary life they already knew would provide the root from which eternal life would grow. Repentance did not mean for them—nor for us—that we cut ourselves off from our past. All that we’ve ever done, all that’s been done to us, no longer merely defines us and limits us. Our past will become that beyond which we have grown. Even the most harrowing, humbling, and cringe-worthy moments of our lives provide the soil from which Jesus nurtures us into eternal life. If we hand the life shaped by our past over to Jesus, eternal life will emerge from the depths of our day-to-day lives.
Jesus’s first sermon pointed us in this direction. The Gospels record the heart of it: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Some Jesus-followers hear something like this: repent or else. God’s harsh judgment is just around the bend. Time is short. Jesus comes into the picture to get us off the hook for sin. The bad stuff we’ve done won’t count against us as long as we believe that he took the punishment we deserve. In other words, Jesus’s message is only about sin and the forgiveness of sin. As long as we conceive of salvation as a rescue operation from the consequences of sin, we will continue to hear “repent” as a requirement for escaping eternal punishment.
But a different message emerges when we reconsider what Jesus means when he says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” In Jesus himself, the divine has come near. Heaven has reached into our ordinary, everyday lives. The holy is braiding itself into the mundane before we lift a finger. God has initiated a relationship with us prior to even the feeblest moral reflection on our part. Repentance is our response to God’s intimate presence in our lives. Flipping Jesus’s word order and amplifying the translation will help convey what I mean: “God is breathtakingly close. Open your eyes. Open your heart. Letting God in will really change things for you. Starting with you.” The Greek word we frequently translate as “repentance” means a change of heart. Paradoxically, we become ourselves by being changed. Changed by an increasing nearness to God in Christ.
Repentance is the admission that we need to learn how to live; a change of heart, however, happens gradually. We have to grow into it. God’s transforming love seeps into our lives sometimes gently, sometimes startlingly, but never all at once. As Ezekiel puts it, God is replacing our heart of stone with a throbbing heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). God replaces the life we made—with our past experiences and our own willpower—with a life grown from divine love. Mortal life with eternal life. The resurrection is shaping our lives even now, but this is not an instantaneous switch.
The essay above is an excerpt from chapter one my book A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Growing Beyond Our Past.” If you’re looking for a study this Lent for your small group or for yourself individually, you can check it out here. Its six chapters—one for each week of Lent—include study questions suited for group discussion or personal reflection.