Transformation: Marrying Spiritual Practice to Confession

Words are beautiful things.

Cockamamie. Flibertyjibitt. Balderdash. Kerfuffle. Not only do they hold meaning, they can be fun to say.

I like to make a note of words of phrases I want to remember or, even better, incorporate into my vernacular. Merlin’s Mushrooms. Good gracious, Ignatius. Gallopin’ grimalkin. Codswallop.

And (I confess), I like puns. My favorite being: there’s this cat trying to catch a mouse, but the mouse keeps eluding him. So the cat comes up with a brilliant plan: he eats a mouth-full of cheese and, his breath laced with the savory scent, the cat goes up to the mouse’s hole and breathes into it, luring the mouse out of hiding. Then he waits, with bated breath.

[Rim-shot, cymbal crash.]

Words are malleable, too. Their interpretation and meaning can change over time. The word “awful” now means “terrible,” though it used to mean that something was worthy of awe, as in “the awful majesty of God.” The word “fizzle” used to mean “to flatulate quietly,” now it’s means “to fail” or “to come to an end.” (And yes, we should bring back that original meaning.) Words, then, are dynamic. They often change over time.

The focus of this reading is on the spiritual practice of confession and repentance. I am placing the practice of confession and repentance in its own category, as the first spiritual practice, because I believe it is the foundation for transformation. At its heart is humility, which is both a grace of God and the posture that allows us to become open to God.

A potential problem in embracing confession and repentance is that both “confession” and “repentance” can sound like such heavy, church-y words. Perhaps they are words which, by over-use or over-simplification or even mis-interpretation, have become tainted or corrupted. After all, Jesus’ message of repentance was an invitation to hope: “repent and believe the Good News.”[1] But I have often seen signs held up, at a football game, say, or at a well-trafficked stoplight, reading, “Repent or Perish.” It brings to my mind the image of a bearded man on 5th Avenue holding a sandwich board that reads, “Repent, the end is near!” Not exactly Jesus’ message of hope and new life.

These interpretations of confession and repentance reflect our human tendency to see God more as an angry judge than a kind father. In a Google Image Search of the word “repentance,” I found (and near the top of the page) a picture that read, “WWJD: Who will Jesus destroy?” And I have seen on my local freeway a sign that read, paraphrasing: “Keep using my name in vain and I’ll make rush hour longer.” We tend to see God not as He is but as we are. And this is a big problem through which Jesus must lead us to freedom.

As John Colquhoun said:

“When a man is driven to acts of obedience by the dread of God’s wrath revealed in the law and not drawn to them by the belief of his love revealed in the gospel; when he fears God because of his power and justice, and not because of his goodness; when he regards God more as an avenging Judge, than as a compassionate Friend and Father; and when he contemplates God rather as terrible in majesty than as infinite in grace and mercy; he shews that he is under the dominion, or at least under the prevalence, of a legal spirit.”[2]

Words like “confession” and “repentance” may evoke in us a picture of Whom God is that does not reflect reality. It is a marvelous demonstration of our freedom as human beings that we can attach to Jesus whatever meaning or interpretation we are most comfortable with. Indeed, often we have to re-claim words, placing them back in their original or proper context as well as submitting our old ideas of God to a new picture revealed by the Holy Spirit.[3]

When we look at the ideas of confession and repentance in their biblical context, it’s clear that, together, they constitute the first and indispensable step in the process of transformation. Only when you name and label something is it able to be transformed. As Peter Scazzero says, “We cannot change what we are unaware of.”[4] And, further, God cannot transform something which he is not invited to touch. Confession is this very process of giving something its proper name, perhaps for the first time; it is labeling something so that it can be dealt with directly. It is stepping out of fantasy and into reality. Reality, as painful as it may be, is also the only place in which freedom may be enjoyed.

This is why confession and repentance is such a big idea in the Scripture.


[1] Cf. Mark 1:15; Jesus does warn about repenting or perishing in Luke 13, where the warning comes in the context of a specific situation and in the broader context of turning to true belief in God.

[2] John Colquhoun, qtd. in Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. Viking, New York, NY, 2015. p 47.

[3] See, for example, John 16:13.

[4] One of Peter Scazzero’s 25 Truisms of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, as found at http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/25-ehs-truisms/

*This blog was originally posted on Brandon Cook’s website here. It has been republished here with permission. 

Brandon Cook is the lead pastor at Long Beach Christian Fellowship and a co-founder of The Bonhoeffer Project. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he studied at Wheaton College (IL), Jerusalem University College, Brandeis University, and The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He worked as a professional storyteller before joining a transformational training organization and moving to SoCal in 2006, becoming a pastor three years later. Over the course of five years of pastoring, he became convinced that his work—and the work of the church—is to become fully committed to discipleship and making disciple-makers. The Bonhoeffer Project is for him a quest to live into the question “How are people transformed to live and love like Jesus?”

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