Editor’s note: The following is part of a Lenten series on the topic of repentance. Lent is an ideal time to draw closer to God, turn away from sin and, in the words of St. John the Baptist, repent!
I have a confession to make and it’s a little embarrassing. Like many people, I enjoy board games, and we’ve had some good family time around the table during the pandemic. That’s not the embarrassing part. But somewhere between my birthday and Father’s Day, my son gave me the gift of an astonishingly complex computer strategy game. Actually, he borrowed money from me to buy it. But it’s the thought that counts, right?
Anyway, this delightful diversion combines elements of some of my favorite games, like “Risk!” and “Settlers of Catan.” Like all computer games, it includes little goodies for unlocking certain accomplishments or achieving new levels. Game developers and social media architects know that these intermittent affirmations give us boosts of dopamine and serotonin, powerful neurotransmitters that stimulate the “feel good” parts of our brains. It’s like a digital pat on the back that urges us to keep playing.
Well, needless to say, I was hooked. It was no problem for me to stay up late into the night, plotting my global conquests or negotiating alliances and trade deals. But rather than sharing life and laughter with family or friends, I was sucked into a competition with a computer. Not surprisingly, it distracted me from other tasks. I would think about it when I had another chunk of time to play, or even fall asleep with images from the game flashing behind my eyeballs. The easiest solution was to delete the game. So I did.
This is nothing new. Most of us have activities or guilty pleasures that we find appealing, amusing or even addictive. That’s why Lent is so essential in helping us take stock of what is most important in life. We go back to the very first words of Jesus’ proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). How do I assess my priorities and subordinate everything else to the kingdom of heaven?
So often we make the Christian life too abstract. We have a vague notion that we should pray more, be more compassionate or generous. But we miss the first word of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent!” It’s a word that has fallen out of favor with our self-centered culture. We are very much about what “works for me,” and so even our plans for Lenten penance are more like spiritual New Year’s resolutions.
We might approach them as a self-help program to improve our looks, our homes or our habits. But do I really examine myself to see that wider landscape of my life and my relationship with those around me? I have to take seriously the idea that there are things I have to leave behind, things that may even be a source of enjoyment or security. The earliest Christian thinkers compared this to the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom and a new identity as God’s Chosen People in the Promised Land.
Do I really need to repent? What if this activity or habit seems good? Billy Joel famously sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
Part of the appeal of sin is that it can give very real, though ultimately passing, pleasure. It feels good to let loose on a Friday night, or use that person’s body, or degrade the jerk I disagree with, or take out my frustration on someone, or close my eyes to situations or people that need my attention. And we can be very creative and convincing in justifying our sinful behaviors.
If we see the Christian life as one of joyless deprivation, why would we want to repent? The truth is, repentance brings with it the freedom to say “yes” to so much more. It broadens our horizons. It helps us shape our thoughts and our habits in ways that build up others, instead of serving only ourselves. As we make ourselves more available to the Lord, he makes our unique work in the kingdom — in our family, in the workplace, in the neighborhood — even more fruitful.
Lord, lead me to repentance, to seek freedom from those things that keep me in bondage. Let me walk toward the light and joy of your Easter victory, for the sake of your kingdom. Amen.
Pable is a practicing husband and father of four, working in pastoral ministry at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Neenah.
2022 Lenten Series
February 25: Journeying on the road of conversion
March 4: Repentance: acknowledging sin, embracing God
March 11: Opportunities for repentance are endless
March 18: Find repentance and be restored
March 25: Lenten focus on forgiveness, gift and humility
April 1: Let us make this day our ‘day one’ to repent