From The Good of Giving Up
In 2010, our family survived “Snowmageddon,” a blizzard that blanketed Washington, D.C., in thirty inches of snow. It took several weeks for the city to clear the streets of the white stuff. As a result, the garbage trucks could not drive into the alleys to collect the garbage cans. For weeks, our refuse piled up, the cans overflowing with flimsy plastic bags containing dirty diapers and rotting food. And because of the snow, we couldn’t take the cans to the alley, so the trash pile was right outside our door. It became a feast for the rats and a scourge for the humans. After a while, we began to dread walking outside our back door.
One day it dawned on me: garbage collectors are my heroes. I produce waste every day, and I need someone to take it away – forever. Otherwise it slowly imprisons me in my own home. I am burdened and helpless unless someone can remove my garbage.
After some of the neighbors had shoveled a rough path into our alley, something wonderful happened. I was doing some work at home when I heard a beautiful sound outside the window: the beep-beep of the garbage truck. Before it was too late, I raced down the stairs, flung open the back door, and ran toward the garbage truck with a bag of refuse in each hand. “Can you take these from me?” I asked breathlessly.
What a relief it was to cast my burdens onto the garbage collectors! They took every bag.
We can draw a parallel to our spiritual lives. In the course of our life, we accumulate a different kind of waste. It is less tangible, but just as real – and lethal. We might call it toxic waste for the soul: shameful moments, destructive patterns, and tragic choices. Some of the garbage is inherited: Our parents or grandparents dumped the waste onto our lawn before we knew what was happening. And now their legacy of alcoholism or anxiety – you name it – lives on in us. Some of our garbage is chosen: the secret vice, the string of words that escaped our lips, the police record that can’t go away. Much of our garbage is communal: we have created refuse piles towering to the heavens, and we add to them in our own individual way, whether it’s racial animosity, economic greed, or sexual exploitation.
We don’t just need a hero to remove our physical garbage. We need one who can take away our spiritual garbage. Whether we inherited it or chose it, it clings to our memories, it poisons our relationships, and it weighs us down. If there was such a garbage collector, who came not to condemn us for our trash but to take it away forever, we would no doubt rejoice. And we need a hero who can take every bag.
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – his death for us on the cross is the only solution for our toxic waste. That remedy is available to anyone, anytime. All we need to do is humbly and repentantly cry, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” and he will immediately answer that prayer with his forgiveness and cleansing.
We need Lent because repentance is not just a prayer. It is a posture. We need time and space to become repentant people, to experience the depths of Jesus’s forgiveness. Our default posture is to use Jesus’s forgiveness like we use the car wash: as a fast, convenient solution to a surface problem. The truth is that the cleansing process needs to go much deeper, like a thorough spring cleaning. It cannot be rushed.
Lent provides forty days for us to behold Christ and his cross, not only to understand it more deeply, but also to cast our soul’s toxic waste upon it. I invite you to imagine Lent as a season when Jesus heals and restores what sin has destroyed in our souls, families, and congregations. The sermons, silence, and ancient prayers of confession during Lent all teach us a posture of gospel repentance.
Perhaps you’ve always thought of Lent as a substitute for the cross of Christ, where instead of looking to Jesus we turn to ourselves – to our ashes, somberness, and sacrifices – to pay for our own sin. But that’s not what Lent is about. Lent is a ministry of Christ’s cross that brings healing and freedom. Practicing Lent is like taking a long bath in the wonderful grace of Jesus. I have experienced it, and so have countless others.
False substitutes for the cross of Christ abound. Lent isn’t one of them. The most deadly substitute is secrecy. Satan, the enemy of our souls, suggests to us that we cannot afford to let our sin – or the sins of others committed against us – to be exposed. He shames us into burying the toxic waste in the backyard and pretending it doesn’t exist. Satan loves it when we self-loathe in secret. He hates the cross and the forgiveness available to us when sin is unearthed and confessed.
Secrecy is the steroid of sin, intensifying its power to destroy us. In the words of the psalmist, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long,” (Psalm 32:3). And Dietrich Bonheoffer notes,
Sin demands to have a man by himself. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of the person.
By attempting to save ourselves through secrecy, we cut ourselves off from Jesus’s loving grace. Hiding our sin is hell on Earth! It alienates us from God, our community, and our true selves. Imagine the long-term impact of burying toxic waste under your home instead of disposing of it properly. Everything might look functional on the outside, but the toxicity underneath would work a quiet destruction.
Jesus invites us to give him all of our toxic waste, to send it to his cross. He wants us to be free. The season of Lent ministers Christ’s freedom because it makes space for sin to be identified, confessed, and healed.
How Sin Is Identified
Sin is identified in the liturgy of Christian worship. Liturgy means “the work of the people,” and Christian liturgy is a series of scripturally based prayers that proclaim the gospel and help us participate in it. As a pastor, I have found that beautiful liturgy can take the pressure off me and the congregation as we worship together. Taking up ancient prayers gives us freedom to respond with joy and unity to God’s work on our behalf. Even “non-liturgical” churches have a liturgy: they invite some kind of structured, meaningful participation in worship of the triune God.
Christian liturgy animated by the power of the Holy Spirit is as interactive as it gets, shaping body and soul, reordering loves and desires. No matter what tradition you belong to, you can use ancient prayers and readings to lead your congregation to renewed repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ.
At Immanuel Anglican Church, the congregation I pastor in Chicago, we open our Ash Wednesday service with a prayer that honors the Lord’s inclination to forgive as well as his power to help us confess our sins:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
After an invitation to enter the season of self-examination and repentance, we name the sins that ensnare every generation:
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ has served us.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives; our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people; our anger; our envy; our dishonesty, negligence in prayer and worship; our false judgments; our prejudice and contempt; our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty; we confess to you, Lord.
Every Sunday in Lent, we read the Ten Commandments as well as Jesus’s summary of the Law and the Prophets: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these,” (Mark 12:30-32). In this way, the liturgy holds up God’s law as a mirror to help us see the specific ways in which we have not kept it. Countercultural though it may be, our liturgy exposes our wickedness, sin, and failure to love God and neighbor.
Sin is identified through Lenten preaching. Lent affords us six Sundays, plus a few special services – Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday – to address sin and its cure. Like the hearers in Acts 2:37, we need to be “cut to the heart” through the anointed preaching of God’s Word in order to be provoked to repentance. One of our Lent sermon series in recent years was based on Jesus’s letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor, (Revelation 2-3), which contain stinging, restorative rebukes that still ring true today.
Sin is identified by the Holy Spirit. All of our liturgy, preaching, and pastoring needs to be infused by the Holy Spirit, who alone brings conviction of sin, (John 16:8). We cannot manufacture God’s activity, but every one of us can submit to it. Every Lent we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” asking God to make us responsive to his presence, which is always calling out to us. He can open our blind eyes to see our sin and soften our hearts to repent of it rather than hide.
All this came together in my life last year. At Immanuel, we were progressing through a sermon series called “Deliver Us,” from the Gospel of Mark. The idea is that we often ask God to deliver us from the big problems of the world, such as corruption, division, and evil. God answers that prayer in part by revealing how deeply rooted all those vices are in our own hearts. In the words of Russian author and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” One of the problems in the world that always bothered me was how judgmental people can be. The people in my life whom I’ve found most difficult to forgive were those who had criticized me. I loved to judge the judgers, to hate the haters. But during that Lent, the Holy Spirit, using my wife, spiritual director, and a close friend, helped me see how often I silently criticize myself. This inevitably leads to harsh judgment toward other people whom I consider arrogant or mean. I always thought my harshest critics were out there. And like a crazy twist at the end of a movie, I realized that the critic was me. I can still remember feeling disoriented and “cut to the heart,” yet full of hope that change was possible.
How Sin is Confessed
After I recognized this sinful pattern, I was ready to confess my sin. This began in my private prayer life in a form you might recognize: “Jesus, have mercy! You have allowed me to see this pattern of judgment, and I need your grace to change.” He certainly had mercy on me in that moment. My prayer shifted from “deliver me from all those critical people,” to “deliver me and the people in my life from my own inner critic!”
Soon after, I gathered for worship with all the other sinners in my church. We heard Jesus’s summary of the law: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Since we had all failed on both accounts, we got down on our knees together and prayed an ancient Lenten confession of the truth:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: we acknowledge and lament our manifold sins and the wickedness we have grievously committed time after time, by thought, word, and deed against your divine majesty. We have provoked most justly your righteous anger and your indignation against us. We earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our wrongdoings; the memory of them grieves us, the burden of them is too great for us to bear. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father. For your Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that from this time forward we may always serve and please you in newness of life, to the honor and glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s fitting for all who are bound together in Christ to be bound together in confession. None of us are free-floating individuals, but are living members of Christ’s body, (1Corinthians 12). All of us that day heard the pronouncement of the gospel: Christ Jesus has put away all our sins and given us his Spirit to empower us to love God and neighbor. I confessed my sin personally and liturgically, but there was more confession ahead for me.
I met with another pastor in my local network whom I respect so I could make a personal confession. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with the idea of confessing to a pastor, priest, or fellow Christian. If so, consider James 5:16: “Therefore, confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Jesus is our sinless and compassionate High Priest who forgives. But you and I need mature ambassadors of Christ, (2 Corinthians 5:20), who can hear our confession, pray for us, and proclaim the gospel to us.
So I met privately with Pastor Stephen, and we walked together through a liturgy called, “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” As we began, he prayed for me: “The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may truly and humbly confess your sins.”
I will never forget the question he asked me after I confessed my pattern of biting criticism. Without a trace of judgment, he asked, “Has this pattern damaged any of your relationships? Can you think of anyone that you’ve hurt?” Immediately, I envisioned a dear friend that I had unfairly and harshly criticized several months before.
A Season for Healing
Sin is not a static, private, one-dimensional event. It operates like a hurricane, wreaking destruction that is deep, wide, high, and long. It damages our relationship with God, with ourselves, with our community, and with the world. We can move with it and yield to its destructive power, or we can get on our knees and experience Jesus’s healing power. Repentance is the Spirit-driven process that repairs the damage, one gospel conversation at a time. With each confession I made, I experienced how the love of Christ could restore each dimension of my life that sin had ruptured.
The final confession was face-to-face with my friend whom I had hurt. We reconciled in a tearful, honest conversation over Mexican food. I asked him how my words had impacted him, his relationship, and his life. Tempting though it was to skip all that with a quick, “I’m sorry,” the healing process required that I listen. We need to hear and reflect back upon the truth, of what we’ve done to destroy, and what Jesus has done to heal.
Repenting on Good Friday
New York City pastor Tim Keller sums up the gospel this way: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” When we confess our sin and receive forgiveness, we experience both sides of the gospel. The light of Christ reveals our brokenness and belovedness at the same time, healing us in the process.
The “Bright Sadness” of the gospel operates all year round. During Lent, we intentionally turn our faces toward it, getting as close as we can to it. This journey culminates in the Good Friday service, when we remember and participate in the love of God in the cross of Christ. The liturgy of Good Friday shines the light of the gospel:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through him all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
During the Good Friday service at Immanuel, we lay a large wooden cross on the floor. We place it in such a way that people can touch it as they kneel and pray. Everyone is invited to pray at the cross, taking as much time as they need to bask in Jesus’s forgiving love. This is a tender moment. Not only do people touch the cross, but many wet it with their tears of lament and relief. Kneeling there, we are able to experience the beautiful exchange symbolized in the cross: Jesus takes our sin, and then he fills us with his love. He has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross,” (Colossians 2:13-14).
As we kneel and pray, we sing,
We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world.
Prayer ministers are stationed throughout the sanctuary. They are trained to hear confessions, declare the gospel, and intercede for anyone who comes forward. My leaders and I have seen Jesus heal the damage of sin every year. The grace of his cross is ministered to anyone ready to receive it. The relief is palpable as people divulge hard secrets, reconcile with God and neighbors, and praise Jesus for his redeeming grace. People are tasting Heaven. There is no shortage of hope on Good Friday.
As the apostle Peter said, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed,” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus bore all our inherited sins, chosen sins, and collective sins. But instead of confessing them and asking for Jesus to take them away forever, we instinctively throw a tarp over them and pretend they don’t exist. On Good Friday, and in all of Lent for that matter, we can hand over all our trash to Jesus. He set us free by taking every bag of refuse and dumping it onto the heap of hell. And he’s still doing that today.