Repentance Means We Are Wrong

I’ve been reflecting recently on a simple question:

Is it possible — or perhaps probable — that Christianity can require something of us that *goes against* our personal moral inclinations?

Perhaps this is too simple of a question. On its face, I think most people would say “Yes.” I.e., Christianity requires us to *change* in some way. Beginning to follow Jesus means that I need to change my current course of action in some way. It almost seems like a silly question to ask.

But I want to dig deeper on this, because I don’t think we often appreciate the reality of this question.

From the time we are born, we are inculcated into a way of living. And within that way of living, we are given a moral compass. It’s probable that this moral compass is acquired from multiple, somewhat unknowable sources. But it stands to reason that these sources would include culture and socialization, ancient philosophy and religion, reason, emotion, political and ideological commitments, geography, and baseline biological instincts. There are probably more that I am missing. This is true for nearly all human beings (barring those experiencing mental illness that prevents them from making moral judgments). In other words, we all have a sense of what actions are “right” and “wrong.” Some of us believe killing animals is morally acceptable. Some of us believe responding to violence with defensive violence is morally right. Some of us believe sexual relationships belong to married, heterosexual couples, while others of us disagree.

Therefore, it stands to reason that prior to submitting to faith in Jesus or a decision to follow Jesus, we have a pre-built sense of “right” and “wrong.” In other words, we have a moral compass. And that moral compass, for the most part is strong. If I believe killing another human being is wrong, it’s likely that I have a strong belief that this is so, and that I ought to never do such a thing.

Now, perhaps there are lesser moral inclinations that are harder to follow. For example, maybe I “know” that I should not yell at my children, but I do so anyway (I clearly have no experience with this). I may have given myself some kind of permission in my head to do this, but will probably feel remorse afterward, and (hopefully) attempt to not do so again in the future.

I want to focus in here on the stronger moral inclinations — the things that we have an unshakeable inclination are right or wrong, and are almost impossible to change our views on.

I might argue that Jesus’ primary call (the call that overarches the ethics to which he calls all humans) is the simple line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Why would he issue such a demand unless he is requiring something of us that goes against our moral inclinations?

Let’s look at it another way:

1. We all have a sense of right and wrong.
2. We have no choice but to (at least attempt to) line up our lives with that moral sense.
3. Therefore, the way we live our lives (usually) lines up with the moral duty we feel (especially for *strong* moral inclinations).

If Jesus requires us to “repent,” doesn’t this mean that he is asking us to deny at least some of the strong moral inclinations that we feel? Repentance means a “turning away” coupled with a “turning towards.” He recognizes that we are living our lives in a certain way, by inherited moral standards, and expects that we will reject those standards in favor of a different standard (informed by what the world would look like if we lived as if God was “king”).

If we make the decision to follow Jesus, and submit to the requirements of living under the purview of the Kingdom of God, we need to grapple with this problem: what moral standards do our culture and upbringing and natural reason give to us that are incompatible with the following of Jesus?

Leave a Reply