From the Psalter:
I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 38:18 (NRSV) – December 11, 2013.)
I thought, “Surely, this is wrong! There can’t be anything as weak and lifeless in Scripture (especially in the Psalms) as the plaintive little cry, ‘I’m sorry . . . .'” So instead of the New Revised Standard Version, I turned to The Book of Common Prayer, sure that I would find a stronger statement, perhaps “I repent.” But, no. The BCP version of this psalm is really even worse because it renders the verb in the future tense: “I will confess my iniquity and be sorry for my sin.” Come on! “I will be sorry”? Really?
I couldn’t sit there in my pajamas disconcerted by such a feeble, apologetic rendering of what must surely be a more forceful statement in the Hebrew. I turned to my old interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament and my Hebrew lexicon; I had to climb the stairs to the second floor study because those are not close to hand next to the recliner in the den. It was worth the effort; I breathed a sigh of relief. The Hebrew is da’ag, which means “to fear, be anxious, be concerned, be afraid, be careful.” In fact, the American Standard translation (which is what my interlinear uses) renders this verse: ” I am full of anxiety because of my sin.” In the Complete Jewish Bible (which I also snagged while I was upstairs), the translation is similar: “I am anxious because of my sin.” To be fearful or to be filled with anxiety because of one’s sinfulness is a lot more than merely being sorry! But even that doesn’t seem quite strong enough . . . .
I’m not sure why the words “I am sorry” set my teeth on edge, but they do. When my children were younger like all children they committed youthful indiscretions; when called on the carpet, their first words were always, “I’m sorry.” My response was almost always, “Don’t be sorry. Change your behavior.” Feeling badly about one’s wrong-doing is simply not enough! What is called for by Scripture, what is called for by the process of growing to maturity, is repentance. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin,” says Ezekiel (Ezek. 18:30) In another place, the Psalmist proclaims, “If one does not repent, God will whet his sword.” (Ps. 7:12) “Repent,” says Jesus, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17)
To repent is to lament one’s guilty state, turn away from it, change one’s mind and purpose, and undertake amendment of life and behavior. It is so much more than simply being sorry! It is to take action to alleviate one’s deep-set feelings of anxiety and fear. “Don’t be sorry. Change your behavior.”
Although Advent is not the penitential season that Lent is, there is in it a call to contrition. Last Sunday and next at the weekly celebration of the Eucharist we hear of John the Baptizer who came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and announcing the arrival of the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:3,16) In Advent, we do our best once again to heed his call and prepare again for the Messiah’s arrival.
There is so much more required than simply a weak plea of “I’m sorry,” and certainly more the Prayer Book’s promise to be sorry in the future! Only with true repentance, right now, and amendment of life, now and in the future, can we “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.