Two occasions this past Sunday brought home to me how much we need seasons of penitence, how much we need Lent. First, a friend shared with me how much he was grieving over his sin. He fought back tears as he did so. A short time later that afternoon, I came across an excellent article from Han Boersma in Touchstone on past practices of compunction and introspection. The day made the trivial things we give up for Lent look . . . trivial.
Some may find some of the practices Boersma mentions a bit overwrought, and my purpose here is not necessarily to recommend them. Nonetheless these should put us supposedly more enlightened moderns to shame. We (including me) would rather banish our sins from mind than cry over them. Most of us Christians today are in such a hurry to skim past Lent and Good Friday to get to Easter. Many of our churches are in such a rush as well.
Even if some faithful of the past may have erred in the opposite direction by holding on to grief over sin when they should have took hold of God’s grace, Boersma and the saints he cites are right about two things to which we should pay heed. First, compunction, grief over one’s sin, is part of the life of the faithful. And compunction hurts. For, as the etymology of the word implies, it is being “cut to the heart” with grief over sin. (Acts 2:37)
Yes, that hurts. It can and should hurt deeply. But there is a worse thing than tears over sin, and that is sin without tears.
Second, we rob ourselves of the full joys of forgiveness and salvation if we do not first experience compunction. If we do not let sink in, let cut us to the heart, how awful our sins and their wages of death are, we will not be in right awe of Christ taking all that upon himself on the cross and then offering us forgiveness and new life. As too many, we may even think we don’t need Christ’s forgiveness all that much in the first place. Forgiveness and salvation don’t make much sense until we at least begin to realize how much we desperately need to be forgiven of our sins and saved from their deadly wages.
To put it a different way, you will not grasp the Good News without first receiving the Bad News. And not just receiving the Bad News about us sinners, but letting it “cut to the heart.” That is the heart of Lent.
I cannot at all claim to have practiced compunction as much as I should. But I have noticed something since becoming Anglican and somewhat observing Lent and then Holy Week. My Easters are more joyous. I even feel cleansed on Easter morning. However feeble, my attempts to be penitent during Lent and to meditate on the Passion during Holy Week were received by our kind Father. He in turn has graciously given me a taste of his forgiveness and cleansing and new life at Easter. It is a foretaste of what I will fully experience one day thanks to Christ and his grace.
Yes, we may rather skip past Lent to get to Easter. We would rather not think that much about our sins and sinfulness. We would rather skip that awfulness to rejoice in the forgiveness, salvation, and new life of Easter. But how can we grasp Jesus saving us without grasping from what he saved us? How can we appreciate his forgiveness without first grieving over the sin he forgives? How can we fully rejoice in the new life he gives as a gift without first looking upon the hopeless death we deserve?
So let us observe Lent aright. (Of course, I will fail to do so, which will give me all the more reason to be penitent.) Let us allow the awfulness of our sin to cut us to the heart. Such compunction and penitence may be unfashionable, but let’s practice it anyway. We may afterward grasp as never before how great is Christ’s love and forgiveness and rejoice in the new cleansed life that flows from his crucifixion and resurrection.
Image: detail from Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son