The Lenten Gift of Compunction
by Sarah Groen-Colyn
portrait of Jean Valjean
by Robert Schilling
The story Les MisÚrables opens as Jean Valjean completes a 20-year imprisonment and struggles to live in a cruel and vengeful world. Despair devours him, and he degenerates into what he was condemned to be: a thief and a dangerous man. At this terrible moment when it seems that the darkness would have its way with Valjean, the Bishop shows him mercy, saving his soul for God. What does Valjean do next? Dust off his bruised ego and justify his actions in light of all the wrong done to him? No. He embraces the piercing of his heart: "I feel my shame inside me like a knife.... And I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin." And lets his heart be broken by the love of the priest: "He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? What spirit came to move my life? Is there another way to go?" (from Valjean's Soliloquy, Les MisÚrables).
In this holy season of Lent the Lord has led me to meditate more deeply on the beauty and power of repentance in the Christian life. In God's presence and through the work of the Holy Spirit, He blesses us with an awareness that the early church named compunction. In compunction we are pierced by knowledge of our transgressions. Compunction is the virtue of awareness of our sin that enables us to stand honestly before the One who made us and receive His forgiving love. This gift that energizes repentance and draws us more deeply into life in Christ is central to the season of Lent. It is also central to the teaching and healing work of Ministries of Pastoral Care. MPC is about listening obedience to God, and repentance opens our ears and puts our feet on the path of obedience -- there is another Way to go! We seek to carry out Christ's Great Commission, calling each precious soul to repent, for the kingdom of God is come near! Many who have attended a PCM or MPC school testify to the wholeness God gives as we confess our sins and receive His forgiveness:
God blessed me during the first day with a breakthrough in my understanding of James 5:16. I don't think I thought I could be healed through confessing and praying . . . but as I walked up to pray with your team, I knew that God would heal anything I confessed. He did . . . and I am walking in healing, believing and taking another step when my thoughts want to condemn.
(Heartfelt thanks to the dear MPCS participant who wrote this testimony and gave us permission to share it.)
In Restoring the Christian Soul Through Healing Prayer, Leanne writes of the three great barriers to wholeness in Christ. Sin is the material from which these three barriers are constructed: the sin of self-hatred, the sin done against us which we have not yet forgiven, and our own sin for which we have not yet received God's forgiveness. Confession, repentance, and unleashing the flow of our own forgiveness are the actions that dismantle these barriers.
Through the centuries and among our diverse Christian traditions, the season of Lent invites us to devote ourselves to repentance. Repentance is a key act of the will that opens the door to healing and transformation, to wholeness in Christ. Compunction is the Church's word for how God pierces our heart, drawing us to Him in His great love in the only approach sinners have to Him -- confessing our sin and receiving His forgiveness.
When I teach at our schools about the healing that comes through forgiveness of sin, I love to quote F. B. Meyer: "Forgiveness is an exotic, which Christ brought with Him from Heaven" (Our Daily Walk, p. 142). This truth is essential to the atmosphere of Christian reality. Forgiveness makes life for disciples of Christ profoundly different from life apart from Him. We must not underestimate how radically everything changes when we come to live under the mercy of Christ crucified. We must also not underestimate how deeply our own emotional experience, symbolic system, and ways of relating to others have been shaped by the world's opinion of repentance. The Lord has brought my attention to the word compunction and how it shines a spotlight on the difference between the radiant path of obedience to God and the other path that leads to death. What we understand compunction to be, and how we respond when the Spirit blessesus with this particular gift, will profoundly shape our lives.
I believe that our capacity for compunction is of inestimable value. Yet I recognize that to say to anyone, "I hope that God breaks your heart, pierces you with an awareness of your sin, and convicts you of your total moral bankruptcy apart from His mercy" doesn't sound exactly kind. What I hope to convey in this letter is the truth that God never shows us our badness without being immensely present in His goodness; He never strips us naked unless it is to robe us in His righteousness.
What does the world say about sin and repentance? How does our own flesh (any place in us where Christ's life hasn't yet penetrated) feel about compunction? The truth is that we flee from any glimpse of what is wrong with us, and we reject anything that threatens to make us feel bad. Certainly our impulse to avoid exposure and flee from conviction has been with us from the very beginning. After going their own way, Adam and Eve's first act was to cover their shame.
C. S. Lewis was very aware of our desire to escape feeling guilty. In The Problem of Pain he writes about how difficult it is to bring modern men, and even modern Christians, to God's cure for us when we haven't yet faced the diagnosis. "A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed" (p. 57). Lewis laments that psychoanalysis has fueled our suspicion of guilt feelings and taught us to bring things into the light, not to experience much-needed humiliation of our flesh, but to desensitize ourselves to feeling shame about what is actually shameful. It is to those who have an awareness of their sin and their need for forgiveness and healing that Christianity speaks: "When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor" (Mere Christianity, p. 38).
In the decades since Lewis wrote, this aversion to compunction has continued its dangerous infiltration into our hearts and minds, and into the Church as well. I hope that some of you have heard of the work of Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame University who has conducted years of research on the religious life of American youth (see his book, Soul Searching, 2005). His findings shine a clear light on our souls and our world. As Smith analyzed teens' descriptions of their beliefs, a dominant religious viewpoint emerged, which he named Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). MTD believes that God exists to help us achieve our central goal in life: to be happy and feel good about ourselves. In Smith's interview transcripts teens mentioned obeying God and repentance from sin each about a dozen times, while they mentioned both being happy and feeling good about oneself around a hundred times, and they said the phrase "feel happy" more than two thousand times! "In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life -- including religious and spiritual life -- is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy" (p. 53).
One purpose for Smith's investigation was to understand how religion is or is not being passed from one generation to the next. His results would still be tragic, but less disconcerting, if he'd found that young people were departing from the faith of their parents, for this would tell us that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is establishing itself as an alternative to Christianity. In fact, Smith has found that American youth are simply articulating the religious perspective that they are absorbing from their parents and churches. In Smith's words MTD "is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults" (p. 51). Although Smith conducted his research in the US, I suspect that this "faith" has exported itself beyond these borders. I would be interested to hear from our readers around the world: Do you see evidence of MTD in your culture?
How has this belief system, so antithetical to Christianity, taken its place at the center of the American worldview? Smith describes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a parasitic faith that has attached itself to Christian tradition and doctrine and subtly transformed the substance of Christianity into its own image. It is essential that we understand how this colonization of our faith has infected our implicit reaction when the Holy Spirit brings us to an awareness of sin. To whatever extent we have been converted to this alternative religious vision, we will think that an invitation to confession, a call to repentance, or an experience of compunction is our enemy. Smith warns us about how the hearts of most Christian teenagers in the U.S. have been resymbolized, replacing the language and experience of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell with the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. "It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith" (p. 57).
In Isaiah 9:15 (SAAS) the prophet warns, "For those who bless this people lead them astray, and they lead them astray so as to destroy them." The world's preoccupation with being admired and puffing up self-love does not aim to save us but to destroy us. There is an accuser of our souls who relentlessly prowls about, pouring worldly shame and guilt upon us. Les MisÚrables opens with this hopeless song of condemnation: Look down, look down, you'll always be a slave. Look down, look down, you're standing in your grave. But we can't rescue ourselves from this threat through the dishonest claim that we are good and happy just the way we are. We are not ransomed from condemnation by the pursuit of happiness or worldly pride. Clearly the enemy of our souls wins a battle when we go this way and resist experiencing compunction. Rather than fleeing from it, let us rejoice in the truth. In Christ our experience of compunction is far from the destructive shame and sorrow the world fears it to be. In Christian reality, to be pierced is to be healed, to die is to live, sorrow leads to joy, and obedience brings freedom. ". . . I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death" (2 Cor. 7:9-10 RSV).
Some of you participated in an Ash Wednesday liturgy and received the imposition of ashes from your pastor or priest. What a blessing to have someone look into our eyes with the warm yet sober love of a truth-teller and, marking our forehead with the sign of the cross, call us to repentance. There is indeed something in us that is made sick, filled with terror, and violently assaulted by our choice to repent. Yet as we discover that we are being delivered from that which has separated us from His presence, we actually begin to experience joy. In Psalm 51 David pleads with God to cleanse him with hyssop. Alcuin of York, a church scholar of the eighth century, equated hyssop to Christ's humility, linking this anti-inflammatory herb with the healing of pride that inflames sinful humans.
Lent is the season in which we choose to enter into God's presence, naked and undefended, that He might show us our sin and bless us with a broken spirit and contrite heart. We discover that those who trust in Him will not be despised. We discover that it was God's great love that was wooing us to repentance all along, and that through repentance we gain acceptance, cleansing, forgiveness, restoration, and transformation. In our with-Christ, in-Christ life we discover what joy there is in repentance, what delight there is in obedience.
If you have not tasted this goodness, of being drawn into repentance with eagerness (or if it's been too long since the last time you have), I pray you will consider joining us soon at an MPC school. I also pray that you will find prayer partners in the church where you live, and that together you will seek the blessing of compunction. The world's view of repentance is always trying to creep into our hearts. It is only by living in Christ's body, His Church, that we abide in Him and mature in this life of confessing our sin and receiving forgiveness from our God. We weren't created to take this Lenten journey alone -- we need other humans to testify to God's goodness, to see us with truth-seeking eyes, to touch us with hands of mercy and healing, and to persevere with us as we choose to turn from our sin and walk in newness of life. Christ's anointing is on those who minister. We need to receive such ministry, to bare our souls to those whom God has sent "to heal the brokenhearted . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4:18 KJV). We receive Christ's healing power as we allow Him to touch us in a most profound and powerful way through His priests among us. We are called to both receive and serve in this work. "A disciple is one who has been unchained himself-he then unbinds others. That is what we do when we 'carry the cross.' We carry God's love and forgiveness into the hearts and minds of others" (Restoring the Christian Soul, p. 159).
Under the Mercy,
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