By Joe Liechty, professor of peace, justice and conflict studies
This week’s theme: On the road to repentance
The journey of repentance that Jesus calls us to take is hard, and many of us are skilled at skirting it. Down that road, however, lies the possibility of our personal redemption and reconciled relationships.
Five stages of the journey are basic: acknowledging a wrong done, accepting responsibility, expressing sorrow, changing attitudes and behavior, and making restitution. Every new stretch of road gets harder. It is one thing to acknowledge wrongdoing, but another to take responsibility, and so on. Change is the crux and culmination of repenting, so any repentance that does not extend to changed attitudes and behavior is not genuine.
Of the five stages, acknowledging wrongdoing, accepting responsibility, and changing are essential, while expressing sorrow and making restitution may not always be required. If the wrongdoing has been behavior that damaged a relationship, changed behavior may itself function as sorrow and restitution, so that formal expressions are unnecessary or even unhelpful.
Sometimes, however, an expression of sorrow is a necessary declaration and interpretation of changed behavior, while restitution can be the sign and seal of sincere repentance. Certainly we would not think much of the thief who traveled every stage of repentance—but failed to return the stolen goods.
If the road to repentance is hard, it is also joyous, because it is full of grace. Many people, when describing how they came to repent or forgive, point to impulses that nudged or pushed them along, moments of illumination, moments of release when what had seemed impossible became possible. Christians will recognize God at work among us. Jesus says to Zacchaeus, the newly, exuberantly repentant tax collector, transformed by his encounter with Jesus: “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9) May it be so for all of us.