I have heard sincere apologies given by public figures, but I've rarely witnessed an apology accompanied by a change in attitude or behavior, otherwise known as repentance.

For those in public service, from local boards to the presidency, repentance is something to be avoided. There may be an apology, even a sincere one, but it is often accompanied by either a defense or justification of said behavior.

To change policy thinking or publicly admit that through learning or reviewing facts will have one labelled and certainly become the target of a mean-spirited meme. Ambrose, a fourth century bishop of Milan, understood this when he wrote concerning repentance, "For what is more harsh than to inflict a penance which they do not relax, and by refusing pardon to take away the incentive to penance and repentance. Now no one can repent to good purpose unless he hopes for mercy." (On Repentance, 1:4).

Ambrose was addressing a specific heresy of the day in which repentance was being demanded but then communion being denied. This was just as unhealthy then as it is today. In unhealthy systems admitting wrong and saying sorry with a view to change is seen as a weakness and is likely to result in being treated badly.

We see it on newstainment channels when politicians either change their minds or have their rhetoric taken out of context in order to be shown to be self-contradictory. What is more troubling is what happens in religion when one is broken down to repenting only to find on the other side a rigid definition of what is required to be a disciple. Who wants to repent into an impossible standard that exchanges one type of guilt for another?

This is not an excuse for failing to change when change is needed. It is simply to point out that for everyone repenting, there is someone on the other side either demanding the repentance happen. One of the most challenging aspects of faith is to begin to understand how the practice of that faith affects interaction with those whom the faithful believe need to change.

Ambrose begins his treatise on repentance in praise of gentleness. "If the highest end of virtue is that which aims at the advancement of most, gentleness is the most lovely of all, which does not hurt even those whom it condemns, and usually renders those whom it condemns worthy of absolution. … For he who endeavors to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off. … And as Solomon says: 'Be not overmuch righteous;' for restraint shall temper righteousness. For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician." (On Repentance, 1:1-2)

Our world needs such wise and challenging words as these today. Few respond well to a snarling, "I told you so!" call to change. We are all hurt and damaged in some way, even those among us who "have it all together." Usually that means we have the resources and enough purpose to present a wonderful façade. No one wants to be totally exposed because we all have things for which we need forgiveness and/or healing.

For those who are believers it is important to be reminded that we are "God in the flesh" to the world we live in. Doesn't mean we are divine. It means we are representatives in the flesh of a spiritual reality. Our view of God and the community of believers with which we associate will be seen in the way we treat others.

We must remember that we are fully known by God. Psalm 139:1-3 says, "You have searched me Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down, you are familiar with all my ways." (NIV).

We are called to repent by a loving but just God. One that offers mercy, grace, and forgiveness on the other side of repentance. Our world needs to learn this, but it must first be well-practiced by those who claim to believe.

Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at sean.niestrath@outlook.com.

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