Lent, Zeal, and Repentance

Hands pressed together in prayer, repentance, preparation for Easter during Lent

Lent: Preparing for Easter

As Easter approaches, some Christian communities celebrate Lent, a time of waiting and preparing for the triumphant return of Christ. According to a blog on the website of the Tullamore Parish, a Catholic community in Ireland, the most important way we can prepare for Easter is to do penance.

What is penance?

The Tullamore website calls it “self denial” and suggests we fast, give alms, and pray. [1] I think of penance as a kind of punishment, like the repeated prayers one speaks after confession or the self flagellation some sects practice in an effort to rid themselves of sin.

Punishing Ourselves in Hope of Reward

Today in the hospital, I met with a man whose wife has been ill for a long time. She may die soon. The man wears himself out taking care of her, terrified to take a break lest something happen to her while he is gone. Beneath his anxious concern lies a deep and goading shame. It tells him he does not deserve nurturing or respite. To atone for some imagined, or perhaps actual, harm he has done, he drives himself mercilessly.

Is this a form of penance, a kind of punishment for his inadequacy, his humanness? Perhaps he hopes others will admire him, that in this way he can win respect or friendship.

He asks me if I think he lacks faith. If he believed strongly, completely, would God not make his wife well again? Does he, in some shadowy place in his mind, think that God will accept his self-flagellation as payment, as a sacrifice, and bring his wife back from the edge of death?

Trying to Earn God’s Love

As far as I can understand, this does not properly reflect the message of Easter. Easter tells us that we need not nail ourselves to a cross or be pious until our knees ache from constant supplication. This will not assure us salvation.

Hands pressed together in prayer, repentance, preparation for Easter during Lent

After all, no one expects us to be perfect. We are not made that way. If we were perfect from the start, we would have nothing to strive for, nothing to accomplish.

It seems silly to punish ourselves for being who we are, for making mistakes. Such punishment gains us nothing and often harms us. No matter how much we mortify ourselves, we cannot earn God’s love, for we have never lost it.

Recognizing Our Shadow Side

That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t need to recognize our foibles and admit them. It doesn’t mean we should not repent. I prefer the concept of making amends to that of doing penance, though. Perhaps, when we consider what we will give up for Lent, we might decide to give up denial. Perhaps for Lent we can learn to face our shadow side and embrace the healing that will help to make us whole.

Last week, we talked about the courage it takes to know ourselves, as deeply and fully and honestly as possible. By doing so, we will discover things we don’t like. We might feel remorse. In that case, a desire to repent is natural. Instead of chastising ourselves, though, we can simply acknowledge what we’ve done, ask for forgiveness, and “turn away from sin” (Mark 1:15). Then we can commit to being better people.

In a book about the enneagram, Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile refer to one of Paul’s letters that reads, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 NRSV). That impulse, to do what we hate rather than what we know is good, comes from our shadow side. The ennegram points that shadow out to us so we can see the places where we are weak and need to change. If we used such a tool to uncover our unconscious desires and fears, Cron thinks we could avoid the fate of “the Bible teachers and pastors” he knew who destroyed their lives and ministries “because they didn’t know themselves or the human capacity for self-deceit.” [2]

Facing Our Shadow Side

Although we can never completely see or understand ourselves, the sooner we face our failings, the less likely we will be to destroy our lives. Whether we use the enneagram to uncover our shadow side, or whether we use spiritual direction or Tarot cards or centering prayer, the goal is not to condemn ourselves or others, say Cron and Stabile, but rather “to become a kinder, more compassionate presence in the world.” [3] With self-knowledge, we have the chance to grow into our best selves.

Perhaps we think we need to deny ourselves pleasure during Lent because we model these forty days of preparation on the forty days Jesus spent in the desert praying, meditating, and fasting. I’m not sure Jesus was denying himself anything, however. I suspect that his time alone was designed to help him see who he was, to come face to face with his shadow side.

In the gospels, we read that Jesus was “led” (Matthew 4:1) or “driven” (Mark 1:12) into the desert by the Spirit. There he had time to prepare, to come to terms with the giving up of his life, with that monumental sacrifice. Surely this could not have been easy, even for him. Then, after forty days, when Jesus was weak and hungry, he was tempted. Did an external Satanic force badger him, or were the cravings, longings, and urges he experienced coming from within his own psyche? Is Satan simply a metaphor for our own addictions?

Perhaps even Jesus had to face his desire for pleasure, power, and acclaim. Before he could fully become who he was meant to be, perhaps even he had to claim his shadow side.

The Clearing of the Temple

All this makes sense as we move toward Easter. But why, I wondered, was John 2:13-22 the Scripture reading for this third Sunday of Lent?

John’s version of this event takes place early in Jesus’s ministry. As the days of Passover neared, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. He went to the temple, finding what must have been a chaotic mob of men selling cows, sheep, and doves for sacrifice. The lowing of the beasts, the flapping of the birds’ wings, the smell of sweat and dung, was probably overpowering. To make things worse, money changers sat nearby, their tables stacked with coins, eager to profit from the travelers who came to town and needed to purchase animals, but who would be turned away if they tried to pay with their foreign money.

It appears that this made Jesus angry.

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17)

Jesus and Anger

A few commentators have suggested that Jesus wasn’t acting out of anger, but was behaving with deliberation and control. Erasmus Sarcerius believed that Jesus not only took time to make a whip, but he then used it not as a weapon, but as a “scepter or as royal arms to show that he was the promised King.” [4] Craig S. Farmer states that this measured twining of cords into a whip “is evidence of [Jesus’] composure.” [5]

I find this image a little chilling. Instead, I imagine Jesus snatching up some rope and flailing it about. Somehow, a wild and passionate clearing of the temple, a Jesus overcome with distress at such disregard for the sanctity of his “Father’s house” and furious at the temple leaders who cheated and disrespected the common people, feels more compassionate and caring, even more kind than a Jesus who coolly and unemotionally braids some cord into a weapon, whose premeditated actions were surely overseen by the very men he was preparing to chastise.

Why is the idea of an angry, even out-of-control Jesus so uncomfortable? J. William Harris, in his article, “What Made Jesus Mad?,” points out that many people are unwilling to admit Jesus could have been as prone to irrational human feeling as we are. They do not want to imagine he was fully human, with human emotions and human recklessness. They want him to be perfect.

The Positive Side to Anger

Yet just because Jesus might have had feelings, that doesn’t make him less a model for our own lives. Yes, anger can be a dangerous emotion. Caught up in our passion, we can harm ourselves and others. On the other hand, sometimes anger is appropriate.

“Anger can push us to action,” Harris writes. “And some things ought to make us mad.” [6]

Richard A. Horsley wrote an entire book showing us how Jesus judged and condemned the oppressive powers of the Roman rulers and the Temple priests. Jesus draws on ancient prophetic traditions to denounce the “unrighteous rulers” and “Jerusalem elite.” [7] According to Horsley, the poor and the outcast to whom Jesus ministered “would have expected and welcomed a condemnation of the high priests, perhaps of the Temple itself, as well as of Roman rule.” [8] They would have appreciated the anger Jesus showed in their defense.

As Harris notes, Jesus got angry by “things that put people down, that robbed them of their personhood, that hindered their relationship with God, or that deprived them of opportunity.” He became angry when he saw his people hurt. In our world today, Harris reminds us, “there is much to be angry about – poverty, ignorance, prejudice, abuse, violence, indifference.” [9] It wouldn’t hurt us to be outraged sometimes. Yet let us not forget that we all have a bit of the Pharisee within us.

“Our greatest delusion,” John A. Sanford writes in The Kingdom Within, “is thinking we can avoid the unconscious and solve the moral problems of life by creating a righteous exterior.” [10] Sometimes we even fool ourselves this way, imagining we might be free from sin. I doubt even Jesus was perfect.

Sin and Sacrifice

The story of Jesus’s clearing of the temple continues:

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22)

Unlike I do, some people say Jesus was free of sin. Some say his sacrifice, his dying and rising up again, made our sins as nothing in God’s sight. I cannot speak to that. But I do know something of making mistakes, of hurting others, of being aggressive when I do not need to be and being passive when passion is called for. Therefore, I understand something of repentance.

The Value of Repentance

Over and over, we are called to repent, to try again. We become better people not so much because we will ourselves to change or punish ourselves through penance as because we learn compassion for ourselves. To change, we must be honest and courageous enough to look at who we really are. To change, we must accept and forgive ourselves and others.

This kind of honesty is important if we want to sustain a zeal like that of Jesus. To be fierce in our love of truth, humanity, and God is deeply challenging. It requires preparation, devotion, and spiritual practice. We must guard against the tendency to be self-righteous, to think we have the answers.

How many times must we sin, repent, turn back to God or love or hope, and then sin again? How many times will we relapse before Easter makes us whole again?

Being a good Westerner, one who enjoys stories in which valiant heroes battle evil villains, where Easter comes and Jesus rises again, where God triumphs, I tend to believe that in the end good will prevail, whatever that means. Times may be difficult and we might be scared. God or hope or meaning can seem so far away. Yet we will become whole again. And we will be broken again. And life will go on, and we will learn to love others, and we will stop trying to earn the love we have already been given.

In faith and fondness,



  1. “Lent – Preparing for Easter,” Tullemore Parish, March 4, 2018, http://www.tullamoreparish.ie/component/content/article/41-submitted-articles/2218-lent-preparing-for-easter, accessed 3/2/18.
  2. Cron, Ian Morgan and Suzanne Stabile, The Road Back to You An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016, 15.
  3. Ibid 36.
  4.  John 1-12, ed. Craig S. Farmer, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 79.
  5. Farmer, Craig S., “Overview,” John 1-12, ed. Craig S. Farmer, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 76.
  6. Harris, J. William, “What Made Jesus Mad,” February 15, 2009,  http://www.mathewsumc.org/html/worship/sermons/What%20Made%20Jesus%20Mad.pdf,  accessed 3/2/18.
  7. Horsley, Richard A., Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003, 83.
  8. Ibid 86.
  9. Harris.
  10. Sanford, John A., The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings, New York: HarperCollins, 1987, 73.

Photo by Om Prakash Sethia on Unsplash

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