I used to have a professor who was fond of reminding his classes, “Christ died to make us perfect!” But I have a problem: I’m not perfect.
In fact, I am far from it. Perhaps because I am so aware of God’s desire that I forsake sin and follow Him perfectly, it breaks my heart even more that I still find myself choosing sin. I am still bitter and resentful. I choose lies, hurtful jokes, jealousy, and curses so often. Where is the love, truth, honoring speech, and praise that would bring me life and bring glory to God?
There must be something terribly wrong for a Christian to know his or her own sinful nature and not be affected by it.
St. Paul tells us in the second letter to the Corinthians, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor. 7:10)
True repentance doesn’t lead to regret; it leads to change.
The repentance Paul talks about has three components:
1. Sorrow for Sin Sorrow for sin is a private but necessary part of reconciliation with God. It means the difference between a heartfelt apology of true contrition, and an apology to acquire forgiveness because “I know I’m supposed to be sorry.”
2. Desire to Turn From Sin The reason we “give up” bad habits or distractions during Lent, for example, is to avoid temptation and the occasion of sin. The outward appearance, the action, means very little without the inward reverence of a person who desires to become holy.
3. Trust in God’s Grace With the Grace Jesus died to give us and the Holy Spirit He left in His place, we can come to a real knowledge of our sins and repent in a healthy way. Lent can bring us into a greater sense of the grace which makes us aware of our sin, which gives us strength to turn from our old ways, and which ultimately saves us.
Many Christians, myself included, often fall a little too far into this spirit of repentance though and suffer more from the ‘regret’ that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians. That regret, an overwhelming and sometimes crippling guilt, is not something I want to be a part of my faith. But I would never want to be entirely detached from the sorrow of my own sin, and the knowledge that my sin breaks the heart of my Father in Heaven, that my sin is what held His Son on the cross.
There’s this attitude that if you’re really a Christian, if you’re really saved, you shouldn’t grieve for or dwell on sin or suffering, and it's not a helpful one. The way we try to hide brokenness and sin and sorrow in the name of being Christians – who are not, apparently, supposed to have anything to complain about – is astounding to me. It seems like, on the surface, there is no room for pain and sorrow in Christianity because ours is a joyful faith. But I believe that it is in knowing real sorrow that we can know real joy.
In remembering Christ’s passion I am reminded of the suffering He underwent for me, so that I could be forgiven, so that I could enter into eternal life with Him. I grieve for my sin and the death that a perfect God endured for my sake. The very nature of the Cross is a paradox. In the cross, grief and joy, sin and grace, death and life, are all present in the fullest sense. I don’t think it’s wrong that we experience that paradox as well.
John Paul II said of Christians that “We are the Easter people and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!” Likewise, Augustine said “A Christian should be an ‘alleluia’ from head to foot.” But being an “Easter person,” an “alleluia from head to foot,” means remembering why we can celebrate the resurrection and ascension of Jesus into Heaven; because first, He knew sorrow and pain, and it is in sharing in His death that we can truly share in the triumph of His Resurrection.