top of page

How Much Repentance?

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

St. John the Baptist was an extremist. There was nothing soft about him. His skin was parched. His hair wild. He slept on rocks and ate locusts. We hear the scriptures read aloud every Sunday at church. We read the words of the bible at our bedside. “Repent.” But what would it have been like to hear this message called out by this wild, provocative holy man, face to face?

“Repent.” “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

I am struggling with something personally. All my life, I have walked the Christian faith. All my life, I have heard the scriptures and believed them. Yet, all my life, while accepting the scriptures for truth, I am not sure anymore how much I have allowed them to really sink into my heart. “Make straight the way of the Lord.” We listen to the religious talk and nod in agreement. All the while, we quietly say to ourselves: “Repentance — It’s good stuff! But . . .  I have pretty much repented enough.” We hear John’s call: “Make straight the way.” And we say, “Bravo! But I do not need to bother making the way too straight. I am pretty good already. Maybe a little tweaking here and there, but I don’t need to make any serious changes. Maybe others do . . . the real sinners need to change their life. . . I’m okay as I am.”

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

How would it feel if John the Baptist stood before us now and cried: “Repent. Straighten your heart”? I suspect we would feel very uncomfortable.

To what kind of real repentance is God calling us?

“Make straight the way.” Εὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν.

The Greek word ‘εὐθύνω’ means to realign, to remove every blemish, to stretch out into a perfect line, like a string pulled taut. “Straight whisky,” defined by U.S. law, is a term granted to fermented mash having undergone thorough distillation — a beverage that is unadulterated and pure. They use quite strict guidelines. Are we as strict in our own effort to be straight?

St. James the Apostle uses the word ‘εὐθύνω’ in his homily on self-control.

“We put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the ‘εὐθύνοντος’ desires” (James 3:3-4).

The pilot of the ship, the ‘εὐθύνοντος,’ the “straightener,” he has the job of firmly controlling the ship’s rudder. In the end, his efforts to straighten determine a good landing or a shipwreck.

“If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts . . . [this] is earthly, sensual, demonic. Where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there . . . Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded . . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 3:13-15; 4:7-10).

You can definitely tell St. James was related to St. John the Baptist. There is a family resemblance. They do not beat around the bush.

“Make straight the way.”

Above all other things, Advent is a season of repentance. The Church calls us to review our conscience, to confess our sins to a priest, our thoughts, our wary conscience, everything that ways on our heart, and in doing so, seek out healing. God knows that we are in process. G. K. Chesterton puts it wonderfully, “We are all on the same boat, and we are all sea sick.” God is merciful. He is love incarnate. He is eager to forgive, and receives all sinners with open hands. Yet, God can only receive the sinner who turns to Him. He can only forgive what we confess. There is no healing without repenting.

St. James ends his heavy words with grace, “Humble yourselves . . . and He will lift you up.” God will lift us up, when we fall down before him.

How can we do a better job repenting? The religious air we breathe in America is soft and indulgent. It is saturated with logos saying: “You’re okay just as you are.” The attitude is contagious and smothering, and it is nearly impossible to shake loose from it.  C. S. Lewis once suggested that the West would have to become pagan again, before it could possibly become Christian. Our ancestors believed there was a problem. They embraced Christianity because it offered a solution. In our day, however, we no longer believe there is a problem. “You’re okay.” “I’m okay.” “Why bother?”

John the Baptist’s words are urgent for us, Christians,  now.

“Make straight the way of the Lord.”

The Orthodox Church offers a medicine for waking us up: the Sacrament of Confession. It has almost been forgotten in our culture. Some churches still practice confession, but have grown soft about it. It is treated like an unpleasant aunt or uncle that you know is family, but you hope you do not see very much. If he shows up on Easter or Christmas, you might say a nice word to him, but quickly duck out and get back to your routine.

This has been the case at times in American Orthodoxy too. When the early immigrants from Orthodox countries came to America, a great many of them were uncatechized, without priests or monasteries, and communities lost the original practice of frequent confession. Our hierarchs are continually combatting this.  They patiently teach that frequent confession is the foundation, to confess rarely is to set up a spiritual trap.

In the 2nd century, Tertullian of Carthage described the hesitancy we all feel about confession: “Some flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation.”

St. Silouan urges, “Tell everything to your spiritual father, and the Lord will have mercy on you and you will escape delusion. But if you think that you know more about the spiritual life than your spiritual father, and you stop telling him everything about yourself in confession, then you will immediately be allowed to fall into some sort of delusion, in order that you may be corrected . . . The Lord helps the humble, and if there is no experienced guide, and he goes to a confessor, whoever he may be, then the Lord will cover him because of his humility.”

The Sacrament of Confession should be frequent and thorough. It teaches us inner watchfulness. St. Hesychios explains it this way: “A great help towards not sinning and not committing daily the same faults is for us to review in our conscience at the end of each day what we have done wrong and what we have done right . . . These daily reckonings illumine a man's hour by hour behavior.”

"Watchfulness is like Jacob's ladder: God is at the top while the angels climb it. It rids us of everything bad, cuts out loose chatter, abuse, backbiting, and all other evil practices of this kind. Yet in doing this, not for an instant does it lose its own sweetness.”

God calls us to repent. We are one week away from Christmas, that sweet, beautiful feast. We have these last few days to prepare our hearts. May God give us the grace to welcome his coming with souls that are pure and straight.


Recent Posts
bottom of page