Editors Note: The two previous articles spoke of Lent as a time to “open wide our hearts to Christ” and “a time to listen to God’s voice.” This article will look at Lent as a time of true repentance and penance, but not just in words but also in our actions as well.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.” So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding. Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.” When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out (Jonah 3:1-10).
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Whenever you think of the story of Jonah, what first comes to your mind? For me, it is Jonah being swallowed by a “large fish” and being spit out on the beach after three days and three nights. But that is not the heart of the story. The heart of the story is the power of repentance, penance, and a change of heart and mind. It is especially the story of a change in actions by a people: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand” (Jonah 3:7-8).
If you want proof that actions speak louder than words, you don’t have to look any farther than this passage from Jonah: “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10).
God had sent Jonah to preach God’s judgment against the people of Nineveh. Upon hearing Jonah’s words, however, the king and all his subjects declared a fast of repentance. And seeing their response, God forgave the people and spared their city. The Ninevites didn’t simply say they were sorry; they took action to show their intention to change.
This passage gives us some insights into power of repentance and forgiveness, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It also shows us the value of “doing penance.” It shows that the sacrament is not fully completed until we have done penance, and until we have shown the Lord that we do intend to change by our actions. It isn’t that God doubts our contrition. Rather, it’s that true contrition shows itself as we try to make amends and as we seek to avoid situations that lead us to sin.
Does this mean that we have to work hard to get ourselves forgiven? Well, yes and no. Perhaps, a better way to say it is that we need to respond when the Holy Spirit calls us to change. At its heart, conviction of sin and the desire for God’s forgiveness is the Spirit’s work. But that conviction is more like an invitation than a wave of a magic wand. We still need to own up to our sin, confess it to the Lord, and show him that we want to change.
So yes, it’s up to us to confess our sins and do penance. It’s up to us to change our actions as well, so that they correspond to our words. But it’s also up to God to change our hearts and to pour out grace to help us make these changes. For without his grace we will fail. The good news is that he loves to do it! God wants to bring about a complete renovation in all of us. He wants to give us all a share in his power, and he wants us to believe that his grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9) to live a new life in him. All he asks is that we repent in word and in deed, and say yes to Jesus as Lord of our lives.
“Holy Spirit, pierce my heart so that my repentance bears fruit in action! I don’t just want to say the right words; I want to be transformed as well. I believe your grace is sufficient to do this. I surrender my whole life to you.”
Many thanks to The Word Among Us (www.wau.org) for allowing me to adapt meditations in their monthly devotional magazine. Used with permission.
[Maurice Blumberg is the Director of Partner Relations for The Word Among Us Partners, (http://www.waupartners.org/), a ministry of The Word Among Us (www.wau.org) to the Military, Prisoners, and women with crisis pregnancies or who have had abortions. Maurice was also the founding Executive Director of the National Fellowship of Catholic Men (http://www.nfcmusa.org/), for which he is currently a Trustee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.]
Questions for Reflection/Discussion
1. Take some time to meditate and reflect on the Scriptures at the beginning of the article. What do you think God is trying to reveal to you through them?
2. The people of Nineveh repented and God spared their city. How would you compare God’s judgment of Nineveh with God’s judgment of Sodom? Why were the judgments different?
3. The article states that the Sacrament of Reconciliation “is not fully completed until we have done penance, and until we have shown the Lord that we do intend to change by our actions.” Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
4. The article goes on to state that “true contrition shows itself as we try to make amends and as we seek to avoid situations that lead us to sin.” Are their still some areas of your life that require you to make amends or to avoid situations that can lead to sin? What steps are you willing to take to change these areas?
5. The article ends with these words: “God wants to bring about a complete renovation in all of us. He wants to give us all a share in his power, and he wants us to believe that his grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9) to live a new life in him. All he asks is that we repent in word and in deed, and say yes to Jesus as Lord of our lives.” Take some time to pray now for the grace to overcome the sin areas in your life, and to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ as you surrender your whole life to him. Use the prayer at the end of the article as a starting point.