The Ripening of Repentance

Keith T. Phillips

Truly Your faithfulness is better than life;

My lips declare Your praise.

I bless You all my life; 

I lift up my hands, invoking Your name.

— Psalms 63:4-5


The psalm appointed is truly a song from a joyful, thankful soul; one that is in near union with its God. Wonderfully does the Psalm express liberation from troubles, suffering, sin—while keeping in mind whence it has come; from the horror of sin to redemption. The psalm may well be one of delight after years of prayer, for the soul undergoes much purgation throughout those years in prayer. It expresses the resounding gratitude and surrender of repentance. It is the gift from a soul God deems a friend for its redemption. The soul of Moses.

We know the classical steps in repentance:

In remorse, we live a deep and sincere regret for one's act. An unequivocal expression, quite naked, of the acute knowledge of the pain and suffering one has caused; an expression that is forgetful of self.

In confession we give an unfettered admission of one's actions in the offense; an admission which does not seek to blame—or excuse or minimize. Neither does it attempt to recast one's self-image. It is a clear statement of responsibility.

In turning away from and forsaking those sins, the soul now enters the more refined, difficult stage. This turning away and forsaking requires both self-knowledge—which is often painful to encounter and accept—and determination to reform.

To see oneself as one is seen and known, and not step back from that harsh reality is essential now. We often falter because we find how dependent we have become on the 'old self'; how central to our false self is the structure which enabled the sin. A great deal of trust (perhaps new to us), in abiding this solitary pain, has to be endured in this darkness. Slowly, we learn the dimension of faith and hope leading to renewal. There is a seeming endless grinding of time before we ‘discover’ we have been, all along, held and fed by the love of God. We understand, now, how blinded we were in our sin, how much we needed to embrace repentance.

Then we heartily pledge never to sin again. This pledge becomes a sort of living thing, for in order for repentance to be 'complete' we (joyfully) expend all our strength to living our resolve, in prolonged deep thought of and an abiding in the good God has given and continues to give, and a belief that repentance brings healing to our character (thinking, belief, attitude) and is a means of remedying our evil deeds.

We are not told anything about this process in Moses. It is clearly implied, for only in thorough repentance is he now open to the encounter with the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15). Moses could not proclaim this song were it not so . . .

Perhaps we have lived, experienced a wretchedness like Moses' after he flees to Midian. We know it encompasses a long period of time—the self-blame, recrimination stalls repentance; refuses to receive God's love. Moses survives. He struggles, though, to leave aside his lingering hubris.His prayer can only be: "The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, 0 God, you will not despise" (Ps. 51). In waiting for God, he lives with his inner chaos.

In the chasm separating the murder and the burning bush, we see the profound reach and effects of sin . . . and the labor of repentance.

In his book, Wanderings, Chaim Potok offers a powerful and insightful reflection on Moses: 

"In a single moment of uncontrollable rage, he not only took a life—and no matter how cruel that Egyptian might have been, the prince Moses could have had no justification in slaying him—but he also threw away his entire future with the royal household." (I would also add he was further alienated from his own people.) "Further," Potok writes, "not once during his stay among the Midianites does he engage in combat, join the men in skirmishing with other tribes, do anything [emphasis added] that reminds us of his prior military training, his ability to kill . . . all he appears to do . . . is wander the wilderness tending the flock . . . it is women and children who regularly see to the flocks; the men are warriors."

Moses flees into the desert in self-exile. Without standing or family or clan, this is surely a death sentence equal to Pharoah's decree. From the well—representing the deep symbolism of water—he is invited to break bread in the priest Jethro's tent. We do not know the content of the exchange that would have taken place, but Moses remains.Seemingly, Jethro asks nothing of Moses. Did Jethro perceive Moses' anguish, his suffering? What did he read in the inward gaze, the faraway look in his guest's eyes? How did he perceive the woodenness of affect and deportment? Moses could offer this clan little or nothing, yet he comes under Jethro's protection, becomes his son-in-law . . .

Rabbi Potok continues: ". . . then the horror of the murder deepens into an endless nightmare of the soul. The killing was senseless . . . a man whose mind is clouded with a miasma of such nightmarish misgiving, cannot be a warrior, cannot kill [again] [emphasis added]. He can only tend flocks . . ."

To be rendered so useless, so ineffective, so full of self-reproach is a harrowing, seemingly unending existence. Even the ability to speak, to have a voice, disappears.

Rabbi Potok again: ". . . a man will perform a sudden unthinking act of heroism or horror, and then spend much of his life in an effort to penetrate into himself and search out the hidden source of his deed.Often there is no source other than the irrationality that is the underground ocean which our species floats [an appeal to abuse or history or provocation is essentially empty, a delay, for they merely fend off—ineffectually—the reality of inquiry]" . . . on occasion he will discover feelings and ideas buried deep within himself, frightening ideas, for they are at odds with everything he has been taught to hold dear [emphasis added]—and yet somehow they seem to him burning and blinding with truth—and he will try to see the shape of them, but they may yet be without form though he senses their power and is alternately attracted and repelled by their luminescence. Then he will haul them out of himself and stare at them in fear and astonishment—as does Moses now in the wilderness." At this point, Jesus' Parable of the Fig Tree (Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-25) is seen with power: at the moment the fig tree is about to be discarded as useless,unproductive, the Gardener begins His work, the work that is the core of repentance.

Other ideas, too, can be seen—the ones of redemption. Of equal power, awe, wonder. In the chaos, then, there are the seeds of order,creation. When, from the depths of our repentance we cry out, "My God,my God, where are You?" God answers, cultivating our repentance to produce a human being of worth; a human being able to love—and receive love-again. God's unceasing act of creation from all eternity enters once again the temporal.

Repentance is multi-layered, it calls for deep introspection and longing, a cooperative endeavor with God. It is a gift from God; under the tender care of the Gardener it yields proper fruit. And we can sing our Psalm from our heart and soul . . .