What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

Jeremiah 24.4-7 (CEB)
Then the Lord said to me: The Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims: Just as with these good figs, I will treat kindly the Judean exiles that I have sent from this place to Babylon. I regard them as good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not pull them down; I will plant them and not dig them up. I will give them a heart to know me, for I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.

Let’s continue our discussion about the “classical” elements of Christianity and whether they are (or what about them is) still necessary for a 21STCentury, postmodern belief system.[1]

This week we’re considering the ideas of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

We recently observed Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement. Jesus would have celebrated this holiday for 30-odd years. He would have understood its rituals, prayers, and meditations as his covenant responsibility to God. Repentance was Jesus’ honor, an act of love witha partner in eternal, multi-dimensional spacetime.

The ancient Hebrews celebrated the Day of Atonement just after the New Year as a way for the Jewish people to restore their side of their covenantal relationship with God. Through rituals, storytelling, prayer, and confession, individuals renewed their vows to a God of overwhelming love.

In Judaism, God is a covenant partner who always holds up God’s side of the partnership. Humans, on the other hand, are easily sidetracked, manipulated, and otherwise tempted into acting less honorably. Emptying ourselves of the crap eating our souls (and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what that crap is), is holistically healthy. Penitence is good for the soul.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all today continue the ancient tradition of repentance. All the people of the book have special seasons of atonement that act as a “reset” for both our personal relationships with God and the entirety of God’s people. In the 21stCentury, I say that is regardless of what we arbitrarily call our religions.

For the Jewish ancestors of Christianity and Islam, repentance was an act of the heart that leads to at-one-ment with the conscious being of everything, God.

Let me stress that this is how the Jewish Jesus would have understood atonement (which we must think of as at-one-ment, reuniting with the perfect love of God) as well. Atonement isn’t necessary because God is mad about something we did or didn’t do. It’s required because our actions and thoughts often naturally separate us from God.

That separation is the definition of sin we talked about last week: sin is all the stuff, habits, activities, thoughts, doubts and fears that keep us from experiencing God’s love. Worse, sin often makes us falsely believe we don’t deserve God’s love.

Well, the ancient Jewish practice of repentance is a powerful way to remember that God’s love is unconditional. God’s the perfect partner, remember? God never turns God’s back on us.

From Moses through Jesus, the biblical story of God is of a force that is somehow compelled by its nature to always do the right thing. God is good. All the time. Humans? Not so much. That’s where repentance comes in. Repentance is soul Yoga. It allows us to work out our spiritual kinks and knots with God as our Guru.

For the Jewish people we read about in the Bible, repentance is about turning back to God both individually and collectively. In the earliest writings, the idea is more often used to express collective guilt than individual guilt. When the nation felt it had done things contrary to their notion of God’s perfect action, the people responded with fasting, lamentation, and confession.

Over many centuries these meaningful rituals became somewhat rote celebrations, which the 8thCentury BCE prophets like Amos and Jeremiah criticize.

Jeremiah emphasized that repentance had to be an inward returnto God which would then manifest in acts of kindness, compassion, justice, and humility. For Jeremiah, the nation is penitent only when her individuals first turn their souls back toward God, who forgives everyone. Because, God is righteous, all the time.

There is a pattern to repentance throughout both testaments of the Bible. First, one must recognize the habits and attitudes separating them from an intimate relationship with divine love. This creates space for atonement, where we are again “at one” with God, where we discover we are forgiven for our human foibles.

This is more than an action to restore ourselves to God’s good graces, though. In the Bible, especially by the time The Gospel of John is written, people think of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness as spiritual rebirth. The idea of being “born again” is the result of penitence and at-one-ment.

In confessing the habits and attitudes that keep us disconnected from the Divine Source of Being, we commit to a new (or renewed) lifestyle, one lived more fully in the awareness that God’s love surrounds us all the time, even when we think we’ve been abandoned.

Contemporary American Christians tend to view the idea of repentance differently. Evangelicals, whose Christianity is based on the Romanization of Jesus, think people need to repent because God is punishing us for “wrong” actions. This viewpoint does not reflect Jesus’ Jewish concept of repentance.

We repent not because God is angry, but rather to rid ourselves of spiritual garbage and reconnect with the One Love of the universe. We repent to atone—to become “at one” with God. We repent because our actions are making us spiritually unhealthy.

In the Bible we see people repenting, reuniting, and then falling back into old habits. Repentance and at-one-ment are cycles in most lives. In Revelation, the author calls for entire churches to repent, a shout out to the Jewish tradition of corporate guilt and sin.

If you’ve ever tried to give up smoking or some other habit you knew was bad for your physical body, repentance is the same idea for our spirit (and consequently also for the rest of our being). John the Baptist, Amos, Ezekiel, Jesus—all the great prophets tell us over and over to stop doing the things that separate us from God.

Jesus teaches us to do this by allowing the Spirit, the flow of God, to work through us, renewing us and reconnecting us, as it did in him. We do this by praying, meditating, serving our fellow human beings, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, and working our mind, heart, and soul into a place where think about the consequences of our actions before we act.

Most importantly, we atone—we reconnect—when we remember that God is pure, accepting, unconditional love. God will never turn us away because we smoked a pack of cigarettes or drank some wine. God will never turn us away if we are biologically predisposed to addiction or substance abuse. God will never shun us for any reason because God is pure, unadulterated love.

Question: How do you practice turning back to God? Does it contain elements of penitence?


[1]Discussing any “system” in postmodernism is somewhat the antithesis of postmodernism. However, nature tends to organize into systems (or humans have the habit of classifying objects into systems). In the postmodern world, human organizations will be more fluid, perhaps breaking or nullifying our current definition of “system”.

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