“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
These two summonses, or better, invitations, are spoken over us as Christians are marked with ashes at the beginning of Lent. We are called to “repent” and to “believe.”
Repent is a translation of the Greek word metanoia. We also often translate it as “conversion.” Repentance or conversion is a call to change our ways of living, thinking, and loving. Repentance summons us to undertake a deep change.
Years ago, I read a book by business school professor Robert E. Quinn entitled Deep Change (Jossey-Bass). The author draws a distinction between two different kinds of change. The first is incremental change. Here we engage in surface or superficial efforts at improvement. It’s like painting the walls or exterior of a house. The basic structure is left intact. We simply change the color, or rearrange the furniture, or, if we are daring, buy new furniture to redecorate the room.
Deep change is altogether different. It goes beyond mere redecoration to a total transformation. Here we knock down walls; we gut the house; we totally redesign the floor plan. We create or buy a different house altogether. Deep change happens when we question the fundamental assumptions and directions of our life and embark on a new life path. As one author puts it, conversion means that we are going in the wrong direction and have to engage in a major course change.
The tough wisdom of Lent is that human beings and human societies need course changes. Lent is a time of moving beyond “I’m not a bad person” or superficial acts of “giving up” stuff such as dessert, alcohol, or TV. The discipline of Lent invites us to take an honest searching life inventory—much like 12 Step programs encourage—and admit the patterns of our living and thinking that are not serving us or others well. For those same patterns also keep us from fully being the images of God that we in fact are.
Yet Lent is not only a summons to radical honesty and deep change. It is also an invitation to believe: “Believe in the gospel.” What is the gospel? At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we read: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
The good news is that God—the Incomprehensible Infinite Mystery of Radical Love—cares about each of us. Not only are we loved. We are to believe that we are lovable. We are so lovable that Radical Love became just like us, to show us how beloved we really are.
A friend recently wrote to me, insisting that I take better care of myself. He told me: “Take care of the precious gift that you are. The precious gift that you are. The precious gift that you are. You can’t hear that often enough.”
For many of us, believing that we are lovable and worthy of love requires a major shift, that is, a deep change or conversion. Because we too often hear, in ways subtle and direct, that we are not lovable as we are. That we are not “enough.” Not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, fast enough, tough enough, man enough, woman enough, rich enough. The gospel of everyday life—confirmed in advertising, social media posts, and family messages—is that we are not enough. We must earn love. But love that must be earned is not love.
The gospel of Jesus is a radical word of grace: You are enough. God became one of us to show us that we are good enough. We are lovable. As St. Paul declares, “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God’s love is unearned and undeserved. It’s the kind of love that empowers us to love others, to love all—as we are loved.
Lent invites us to believe in the gospel of God’s love for us. The Christian life is a response to God’s overwhelming love. We then are empowered to show that love to all without exception—especially to those considered unlovable, beyond love, or not good enough.
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.” This is a demanding Lenten program. Yet, imagine what we would be like, what the church could be like at the end of Lent, 40 days later, if we took these summonses to heart?
This article also appears in the March 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 3, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Thays Orrico