Genuine repentance and the Gospel

Yesterday I watched some of the victim impact statements in the sentencing trial for Larry Nasser, who pled guilty to charges he faced as a result of decades of sexually abusing young women and children under the guise of medical treatment. Over a hundred of his victims confronted him in court. One was Rachael Denhollander, who gave one of the most powerful statements about repentance and the gospel that I’ve ever heard:

If you [Larry Nassar] have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way. 

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

That is my prayer for all who have abused me or my friends or loved ones in any way…that they would (or did before they died) experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so that they may experience true repentance and forgiveness from God.

This is not “cheap grace”. It is very costly indeed. Many who claim to have “repented” have little or no idea what that really entails. Genuine repentance isn’t feeling terrible about what you’ve done, or even making heartfelt promises never to do it again. As long as you are still clinging to one shred of justification for your actions, or minimizing them in any way, or blaming others (“Well, that’s not the way I remember it…how was I supposed to know?… I think she’s overreacting…besides, look at what they did!”) you have not yet faced the truth or experienced the “soul crushing weight of guilt” — what the Bible calls the “godly sorrow that leads to repentance”. One dictionary definition of genuine repentance is “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life”. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s ongoing. The real repentance is not telling people how sorry you are; it’s the changed way in which you live for the rest of your life.

So if you find yourself tempted to tell the person you’ve sinned against, “I’ve already repented! What more do you want?” because they just can’t seem to let go of the past…maybe you need to get down on your knees and ask for more of that awful truth, more of that soul crushing grief, and more grace to truly repent. [Preaching to myself here…]


Edited to tweak things a bit, correct the spelling of Rachael Denhollander’s name, and add a few things, including the following…

Later in her impact statement, Rachael said some profoundly frightening words:

…In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.

May God have mercy on all of us. I do not want to be one who minimizes evil, who excuses it, who tries to make it seem less than what it is, especially if it is evil that has touched me — and, even more so, if it is evil that I have perpetuated.

Evil is a strong word, and I am tempted to reserve it for only the most heinous of acts; in other words, the things other people do, not me. But evil is the opposite of good; it is any sin perpetuated against God or against others. My very tendency to make evil someone else’s problem costs me “the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness”. It is too high a price to pay. I would rather suffer the most painful godly sorrow in order that I might truly repent — and walk in the glorious freedom of forgiveness.

I included some more of the impact statement in a separate blog post.

Holy week

Those of us who were not raised in a liturgical tradition, or in a faith community that observed the church calendar, often don’t know what we’re missing out on when it comes to the celebration of Resurrection Sunday — or what most of us call Easter. We may have wonderful Easter sunrise services and even meaningful Good Friday services, but we usually have not had the full benefit of putting the greatest events in Christianity in their context in a way that is both meaningful and practical.

We have not observed Lent as a season of preparation, personal sacrifice, repentance, contemplation, and longing for the glory of the Resurrection to be celebrated with joy. We have not set aside Holy Week as a time of somber prayer and reflection. We have not washed one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday, partaken in the Lord’s Supper together, and grieved the betrayal of our Savior. We have not wept on Good Friday at what our sins did to Jesus Christ, and mourned the suffering it cost Him to redeem us. We have not spent Saturday night in vigil, waiting…waiting…

The truth is that we need reminders. We need to make the gospel, the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, as personal as possible. We need to remember. We need to set aside the business of our everyday lives, and allow ourselves to walk through the events of Holy Week.

At least I do.

So today I read the old familiar passages about the Passover, both its origins and its new meaning as instituted by Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed. I read of the Last Supper, and of the betrayal. I read beautiful prayers of the Church. And I asked the Holy Spirit to allow all those words to grip my heart and break it anew and afresh. I asked Him to examine my innermost being and show me where I need to repent…to reveal to me my sins of omission and commission…to make me painfully aware of how I fail to love God and my fellow human beings as I should.

I don’t want this to be just another Easter season, one in which I live Holy Week as if it were any other week, sing a few wonderful hymns on Easter Sunday, eat a nice dinner, and then go on my merry way, untouched and unchanged by my celebration. I want to remember, and I want to be transformed by the reality. I want to truly live as one of the Easter people should. As Pope John Paul II said:

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

An “aha!” moment about purity

Could it be that it’s even less about me, and less about my efforts to become pure than I ever imagined?

In the past, I spent so much time hung up about doing, that in my worst moments of extreme distress and failure, I admitted to a few confidantes, “I don’t know how to do Christianity!” Years ago, I announced to my parents, “I’m just not cut out for Christianity.” It took decades for me to grasp my father’s reply, “But that’s the whole point.”

One of my favorite passages is this:

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”‭‭ [1 John‬ ‭3:2-3‬ ‭NASB‬‬]

Silly me — I always interpreted that last verse as saying, “So if you have this hope, you need to purify yourself.” I rejoiced that, on that glorious day, seeing Jesus just as He is would purify me and transform me into His likeness. What a wonderful hope! But I missed the true connection with the next verse. Just as seeing Jesus will transform me, so will fixing my hope in Him. Bottom line: the more I focus on Jesus, the more like Him I become. That’s what that passage really means.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.


The director and the actress

As I posted before, I usually don’t write allegories. But then one came along and pretty much wrote itself. Every now and then, I’d re-read it, maybe tweaking a word or sentence here or there. I’d think, “I really should add a part where the actress talks with the director.” And that’s as far as it got until recently.

I hope it means something and is a blessing to someone else besides me.

Of course none of this will make any sense whatsoever unless you start reading here.

The director looked across the table at the actress and smiled. He had such high hopes for her — and for the actor, especially now that he’d begun to get through to him — and he was looking forward to finally being able to tell her of some of his plans.

She smiled back. It had been a year since the actor had begun to have his change in heart about her, but that didn’t really explain the dramatic growth she had gone through in that time.

“This has been my best year ever!” she enthused, as if reading the director’s mind. They began reminiscing together.

“What made the biggest difference for you?” he asked, fully knowing the answer, but never growing tired of hearing her tell of it. He loved how her eyes lit up, how excitement, joy, and wonder filled her voice.

“It was…well, everything you said to me that day that I came into your office, wanting to quit,” she began.

He would never forget that day. She was discouraged, frustrated, hurt, angry, at the end of herself. He had listened patiently as she poured out all her feelings, until she dissolved into desperate tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” she had finally managed to choke out. “I’m tired of failing. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. I can’t go on like this.”

He had found himself telling her the most hope-filled story that he knew. “Remember, I was friends with your parents, and I was there when you were born,” he said, “I got to hold you right away. I loved you then. I held you close and whispered a secret in your ear and someday, when the time is right, I’ll tell you what it is. On that day, I also told you what your real name is, the one you were meant to have from the beginning of time, the one you will not hear again until you are ready.”

When he had said this to her, she had wiped away her tears and looked at him as if he was crazy.

So he reminded her of their history together, the parts she could remember, and even some parts she had forgotten. He reminded her, over and over again, that he had always loved her as a father and a friend.

“Your problem,” he told her, “is that you don’t believe that. You don’t believe me. You’d rather listen to the actor, even though he will never love you the way I do and, all too often, he does not even speak for me. When will you realize that? When will you seek my approval more than his?”

Those final words had stung her. She had protested and argued, and then dissolved yet again in frustrated tears. Finally she had walked out.

“That was the turning point,” she said now. “Once I sat myself down and thought about everything you told me, all the things you reminded me — it all made me realize that you knew me longer and better than the actor did — and that you love me more than anyone else ever will. Plus…well, you’re the director, and he isn’t.” She flashed a relieved grin at that last sentence. “That’s why I came back.”

Now he looked at her more seriously. “So you finally believe that I love you and want what’s best for you, right?”

She nodded. “Of course! You’ve proven that time and time again but I was too blind to notice! You’ve always been there, my one constant, my most loyal friend. I’ve lost count of how many times you rescued me…how many second chances you gave me…how many times you let me start over…how many crises you helped me through. You’ve changed my life.” She paused for emphasis. “Now I think I really do believe that you love me as much as you say you do.”

“You trust me.” He said it as a statement of fact, calmly. She nodded again, but she looked slightly apprehensive, wondering if she was about to be tested.

“I have a new script,” he announced simply.

She looked excited. “Really? Tell me about it!”

“It’s the kind of complex, demanding role that you were born to play. It’s tailor-made for you, but it will also be extremely challenging. Extremely.”

“What about the actor? Is he in it?”

“Oh, you’ll still both be playing your same basic roles, except I’m developing your character much more fully than before, and expanding your part in the script a lot. Focus on your role and let me worry about the actor. The changes in the new script will require your utmost concentration, and you and I will have to work together more closely than ever before.”

“Great!” she said.

“One more thing…the new script also requires that you dance.”

“Dance? The actor hates dancing! He will never agree to it.”

“No, not that kind of dancing. You won’t need a partner for the dances I want you to perform.”

“But…but…” Tears filled her eyes and she bit her lip. “What about my leg? I can’t dance. You know that. I’ll stumble and…and…I’ll fall down. Besides, who wants to see a cripple like me try to dance?”

“I’ve choreographed the dances, and I’ve taken your leg into consideration. I will teach you myself. Trust me: you will dance more beautifully than you can possibly imagine, even if it feels awkward to you. Are you forgetting that I’m also a doctor — the very one who attended your birth and took care of you after your accident? The dances I’ve created for you are therapeutic and healing — they will strengthen and restore your leg. Eventually your limp will disappear.”

She looked incredulous. “Seriously? You mean that?”

“Of course.”

“I never dreamed I would ever dance…” she whispered in amazement, as if afraid to speak the words aloud.

“That’s not all,” the director said. “The script I’ve been writing — it’s based on the stories you used to write as a little girl, and the stories I used to tell you. It’s based on your fondest hopes and dreams, the ones you’ve long given up, even forgotten. I remember them all, every desire of your little girl heart and, in the script I always meant for you, they all come true. Well, except for some of the silly or dangerous ones.” He smiled. “But the good ones all come true.”

Her tears flowed freely. “But…why?”

“Because it’s the role you were meant to play all your life.” He paused to let the words sink in. “You just weren’t ready before now. I think that now, finally, you truly want those things again — all those long ago hopes and dreams — more than you want anything else.”

She sat there in stunned silence, trying to process it all. Finally she spoke, “So, despite everything, all my failings, all the ways I’ve messed up and disappointed you, I get to play my dream role? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does,” he countered gently, “if you remember how much I love you.”

“But what about the actor? Does he get his dream role too?”

“Leave him to me. After all, I love him too, far more than you ever will. But your role — this new script — is far less about him than it is about you. Promise me one thing: always look in my eyes instead of his, and never forget that I am the director, not him. He’s just another actor, like you, and he has his own script.”

He paused and grew almost stern. “I have to caution you about something. You finally stopped believing his criticisms and stopped veering off the script in reaction to him — right about the time he was becoming less negative and critical. But now he could pose an even greater danger to you, if you become used to and dependent on his kindness and praise. You’ve longed for him to approve of your performance so much that I’m afraid his positive words might have more power over you than his negative ones did, and you might become willing to do almost anything for them to continue. You must never forget that he is not the director. My approval must matter far more than his. Look to me only.”

She nodded.

“Always, always act as if I’m your only audience.”

She nodded again, and he thought she had never looked more beautiful and more strong. He thought her face could have lit up the darkest room. “This is amazing…too good to be true…I must be the luckiest actress alive!” she burst out.

“I think it’s time.” he said abruptly, standing up.

“Time? Time for what?”

“This.” He beckoned her to stand and, leaning down towards her, spoke softly in her ear. “It’s time you finally heard what I whispered to you so long ago, on the day you were born. And, after you hear it, you won’t just dance. You’ll fly!”

“Fly?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t explain. Instead, he whispered a sentence, the secret he had told her the day she was born…words she hadn’t realized that she had longed to hear all her life, words that explained everything, words that set her free, words that frightened and exhilarated her, words that were both healing and challenging, soothing and provocative. It was as if she was hearing his voice, his real voice, for the very first time.

She gasped. Tears flowed. And she threw back her head and laughed. That’s how powerful his few, seemingly simple words were. What he spoke wasn’t just a statement — the truest words she had ever heard — but a glorious invitation.

He was calling her forth into her destiny.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes — ” the words tumbled out in enthusiastic agreement to the new script, to the director being her audience of one, to everything he wanted her to be, and to everything he would help her become.

In return, he held her closer, in a fatherly embrace…and spoke her name: her name he had whispered to her at birth, her real name, her beautiful, beautiful name that no one else but them had ever heard.

This time she shouted — shouted loud — with joy, throwing back her head as if she wanted the heavens above to hear her. She lifted her hands high in the air and shouted with triumphant eagerness, “YES!!”

And then she danced.

The director and the actor, part 3

This will make zero sense unless you start with Part 1

I need to add an important caution to this next part of the allegory. It is not advocating that one spouse’s love can “heal” their abusive or overly critical partner. This allegory is not necessarily about marriage — and certainly not intended to be about an abusive one — but about relationships within the Body of Christ. (In fact, this part makes me think most of all about church leaders trying to deal with broken and wounded sinners — especially the “messy” type of trauma victims many Christians have the least patience with.) We need to remember that it is God’s love that has the power to transform; our love cannot save anyone. At the same time, recognizing that we are neither Christ nor the Holy Spirit does not give us excuse not to love. 

When the director spoke again, there was still compassion in his voice, but the tears had been replaced with a gentle firmness. “The actress has been a rebel at times. She has deeply grieved me. Before you met her, she was in another one of my shows, and sometimes she wouldn’t show up and I had to go looking for her. A few times I even dragged her out of bars. She has had a rough life, and she’s been through things, and done things, that you’ll never understand. As I said before, she finds it really difficult to believe that I’m her friend, and not just her director. She has an even harder time believing that I love her like my own daughter. She feels completely inadequate to play the role I wrote just for her. But despite all of that, despite her fears, despite her injured leg, despite her messy past, despite the times I’ve had to come down on her pretty heavy, she will sometimes throw herself so completely and totally into her role that it makes my heart sing. Unfortunately, she never realizes how well she has done — in fact, she always thinks she messed up. That’s because she forgets to look at me, so she can’t see the delight in my eyes, and…well, I told you that your voice drowns out mine. Each of those time, you thought she had messed up too.”

Both of them sat in silence for a moment, lost in their own thoughts, until the director said, “You two have so much to teach each other. She knows that. I wish you did. Well, actually she thinks she has nothing worthwhile to offer anyone, especially you, and you think you have a lot to teach her. But you are teaching her mostly wrong things, the opposite of what I’m trying to teach her. I’m gentle and soft-spoken — both of you seem not to hear me at times — and when your voice is harsh and critical, it becomes so loud that mine cannot be heard at all.”

“Yeah, but what about when she yells at me?”

“Haven’t I been dealing with her yelling? It’s your voice that’s the problem now, and the way you are using it to damage the spirit of someone I am trying to heal. Can’t you work with me on this? And speaking of things that need to be dealt with…you are so critical of her, so condemning. You have gossiped about her to others in the cast, violating my ‘no gossip’ rule.”

“Wait! That was not gossip! I needed to talk to someone…I was just pouring out my problems…”

“You never asked me. I would have told you that you were picking all the wrong people, people with bad advice, who spread your gossip further, and who encouraged your resentful attitude. I notice that you didn’t go to people who you knew would agree with me, and you resented me so much by then that you didn’t want to hear a word I had to say about the situation. I already told you what to do — in fact, I even wrote it out for you — but that’s not the answer you wanted. What you wanted was to be the director and to control the whole show: script, casting, and everything. You didn’t like my script; you refused to play the role I wrote for you; then you tried to argue with me that you knew better and didn’t need my direction when it came to this role.”

The truth of the director’s words stung even more as he went on, “And you know something else? When you rejected her, when you ignored her, when you despised her, when you judged her harshly and unfairly, when you accused her wrongly, when you turned others against her, when you were cold and indifferent to her tears and pleading — I knew. I saw it all. I heard her sobs alone in the dark. And you were doing all those things to me, because I love her, and she is like a daughter to me. You despised and rejected me. And, all that time, you were telling her — and anyone you thought would agree with you — that she was the one messing up and you were the one following the script.”

The director let his words hang in the air a while before he continued, “Oh, yes, she messes up. She is one of the most wayward and difficult actresses I’ve ever had to work with. Maybe that’s why I love her so much — she needs it so desperately. But the thing is that a lot of the time you got it wrong. You thought she was messing up when she wasn’t, just because she wasn’t doing what you wanted. You were so focused on yourself and how it was unfair of me not to give you ‘artistic control’ of your part of the show, and how you deserved so much better, and how wrong I was — you were so bitter and angry that you never noticed or cared that she actually loves you. You rejected that as coldly as you rejected her.”

A few times, the actor had wanted to speak up, to defend himself, to point out more of the actresses’ flaws and failures, but his defenses had crumbled, and he was still fighting back tears.

“Do you remember once, when you had come to me yet again with a barrage of complaints, that I told you how this was a perfect opportunity to learn how to love? You muttered something sarcastic about how she was so unloveable that if you could learn how to love her, you could learn how to love anyone.”

The actor wanted to defend himself, to insist that he’d just been joking, but then thought that now was not the time to accuse the director of being as humorless and overly sensitive as the actress.

The director went on, “Oh, my friend, once again you missed the point entirely! I meant that you were supposed to learn how to love by watching how she loves. The ironic thing is that, even though she thinks she is unworthy and doubts my love, she is learning to love the way I do.  I’m not sure why — maybe because I encouraged her to see you through my eyes — but she grew to love you. All the things you said and did to her, the way you treated her, the way you refused to see and appreciate the best things about her — that would have killed the love of most people. In fact, she came in to see me more than once, crying, and asked me, ‘Why are you so into this love stuff? The more I love, the more it hurts!’ I was tempted to say, ‘Oh, you and me both!’ But I told her that the harder someone’s heart is, the more they need love. I reminded her how love is the only force in the universe capable of healing people. Don’t take this the wrong way, but someday she will pity you when she realizes your heart is far more crippled than her leg. Right now she worries that she loves poorly, but I keep telling her that hard-hearted people don’t cry about how hard-hearted they are.”

The director grew silent, waiting until the actor looked up. Then he said, “You need to trust me, really trust me. You need to stop despising and rejecting her love, just because it doesn’t look and act the way you think it should. Don’t you realize that the type of actress you think you want would end up being just as cold and rejecting as you are? No other woman would be so willing to love and love and love the way the actress keeps loving you. Unfortunately, some of that comes more from a place of brokenness and sense of unworthiness than it does from strength. But she is only human, and eventually you will wound her too deeply. If not…well, every woman longs to be loved and respected in return. She is no different. She will give up on you…and you will continue on with your misguided notions about love. You have no idea the treasure you have been trampling under foot, and you have no idea how deeply you have offended me. The irony, though, is that you also have no idea that it is you who has been most damaged by your pride and ingratitude — and by your unwillingness to trust that I know far more about love, and far more about directing, than you do.” His voice changed from stern to loving, and tears filled his eyes as he clasped the actor’s hand in his. “Oh, my son,” he said, so grieved that his tears flowed again, “I pity you. How I pity you…”

The actor left, feeling hurt and bewildered. How could the director accuse him of not trusting him enough? Wasn’t he the one who would tell all the other actors that, in order to be good at their craft, they needed to trust the director and do what he said? Could it really be true that he hadn’t been trusting him after all? And why couldn’t he find a woman who would love him the way he wanted to be loved? Why did the director think the actress was so special — it wasn’t as if he was blind to her faults. He thought he knew the director very well; in fact, he thought their close friendship gave him unique insight, and he would often tell the other actors what the director really meant. But almost everything he had said about the actress baffled the actor.

To his surprise, the indignation he had been nursing along began to fade as he drove away from the studio. Perhaps it was time to let it go. Perhaps it was time to turn over a new leaf, to humble himself, and to go back so he could ask the director for forgiveness.

I really do want to trust the director, he thought. And I want him to teach me what it is to be a real friend. Because I’m a terrible excuse for a friend, the way I’ve been treating him lately. Some of his friend’s words began to pierce his heart, and he grew astonished at how deep the director’s love was for the actress, so much so that he considered an affront against her to be an affront against himself. How could the director love such a flawed person? Why would he even want to? Then he remembered what the director had said: “Maybe that’s why I love her so much — she needs it so desperately.”

That’s when a terrible thought hit him: Is that why the director loves me? Because I need it so desperately? Is my heart really as crippled as he says it is?

It wasn’t until later that he had one of those “aha!” moments that would change his life forever, a realization that — in the weeks and months to come — led to such a profound change in him that it turned his life upside down, eventually bringing him the most heart-rending pain he had ever experienced as well as exquisite joy he had never dreamed possible. Many consider the director to be the best there is, the actor realized, yet he stoops to working with unknown actors in a soap opera. He’s right that I don’t trust him, or I’d have torn up my own script long ago, and I’d not hold back when it came to following him, even when I don’t understand. If I really trusted him, I’d believe what he said…oh, how wrong I’ve been about everything…about the script, about the actress, and especially about the director!

**********

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
C. S. Lewis

**********

And now, finally, I’ve posted the last installment.