Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.14-15)
Between Here and There
I happened on a “Dr. Phil” show the other day that filled me with sorrow and angst. A woman who’d been repeatedly abused by her lover brought him to the good doctor, looking for help in her desire to change him. The man—who was shackled with a lifelong history of violence against schoolmates, strangers, his parents, and a previous wife—admitted he was helpless to control his rage. Still, the woman, like many battered spouses, couldn’t accept that she was powerless to heal his sickness. Dr. Phil all but begged her to let him go, stressing that she was in over her head and predicting if she stayed with him, the violence would worsen until one of them was dead. “You can’t keep living like this,” the doctor said. By program’s end, she seemed to wake up. Yet I wasn’t as convinced as I wanted to be. Her decision to move on lacked the conviction she voiced in her confidence she could mend her lover and undo their past. It saddened me think the dream of changing him held her with such force she’d never turn her back on it or him.
The woman’s distorted sense of reality—and real consequences—reminded me of a popular gospel tune from my youth. It was all about Heaven. Yet whether or not its composer realized it, the song belied a mournful existence that drove him to place his entire hope in a bright dream. “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop,” the song said, “in that bright land where we’ll never grow old. Some day yonder we’ll never more wander, but walk on streets paved of purest gold.” The sorrowful and frustrating side of the song was—to me, at least—how it ignored the long road and hard climb the writer would undertake to reach his home beyond the hill. Between here and there, he will grow old, he will wander, and his road will be tedious and sometimes rough. That’s how life goes and that’s why life is what we make of it. What went missing from his picture were the joys of aging, discovery, and overcoming hardship. He’d adopted a victim mentality that crippled him. It’s sad that the dream of everlasting bliss had so captivated him he couldn’t turn his back on dismal influences shaping his concept of present life.
A New Narrative
In essence, Dr. Phil urged his guest to repent—to turn her sights from undoing the past and focus forward to a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future. It’s arguable that the song’s composer should have done the same. Most of all, however, I would entreat all of us to pause in these early days of Lent, during which the call to repent rings loudest, to ponder what repentance truly is. Too often repentance gets mixed up with penitence—i.e., profound regret for our shortcomings and failures. And that’s not what it is. To repent means turning around, looking in a new direction, going a different way. When we repent we drop the curtain on our old dramas and enter a new narrative that propels us toward a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future. It’s not about dragging past guilt and doubts into our current, renewed life. Nor is it about wandering through life on a wing and a prayer that we’ll find a better one in the Great Beyond. Repentance focuses us forward into the Great Big Messy and Marvelous Now, where what calls us ahead changes us so we can change what’s ahead.
Mark, the first Gospel written—hence, the one presumably closest in time to the actual events—reports that Jesus exits His wilderness experience declaring a new message that casts repentance in a brilliant new light. “The time is fulfilled,” He says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus preaches a Here and Now Gospel, not one about There and Then, the gospel of a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future, not one of mansions tucked behind hills, eternal youth, and strolling golden boulevards.
Believing in the Good News
As Rob Bell writes in Love Wins, “[In] Jesus’s first-century, Jewish world, they didn’t talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.” When Jesus calls us to repentance, He urges us to get away from deadly ideas, far-sighted fantasies, and misguided belief that we should endure abuse and violence—not just physical harm, but also spiritual, emotional, and psychological trauma that seeks our destruction and undermines peace. Jesus says the time is now. The kingdom of God is within reach.
Believing in that irrevocably alters our understanding of repentance, and with it, how we regard Lent’s mission. We are walking into an immediate future—a soon-to-be present—that we shape in obedience to Christ’s teaching and example. We turn our backs on the dismal past to focus forward, believing in the Good News Jesus delivered and made available to all through boundless love splayed on a hateful cross. Lent’s repentance is guilt and grief-free. It’s a pilgrim’s progress that opens our eyes to greater health and truer hope every step of the way. That’s Good News we can believe in.
Lent’s call to repentance asks us to turn around and walk into a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future.
Postscript: Question 2
What makes us so reluctant to turn around? I’ve put a few of my ideas in the comments and look forward to hearing yours.