I found the juxtaposition startling. I had just finished jotting down notes on John the Baptist’s ministry in Luke 3:1-20, the short of which was “Repent!” I then scanned some news headlines and noticed that Lance Armstrong confessed. Wow! But he did so on a couch next to Oprah. Give me a break.
Repentance translates a Greek term, metanoia (μετάνοια; “change of mind, thought”), that indicates an alteration in one’s perspective that results in a change of behavior or pattern of life. It’s Old Testament roots are shub (שׁוּב; “turn; return”), as in return to God (e.g., Mal 3:7). As the converse side of faith – you turn from sin and turn toward God – repentance is no less the fruit of His sovereign grace as faith itself (e.g., Acts 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). Unfortunately, repentance is often confused with a regret or an apology. But repentance is thorough, public and not self-preserving. You are renouncing what you once thought was acceptable and so no longer living in it. To get as practical as John the Baptist, you cease hating others by hoarding goods and begin to share (Luke 3:11). You no longer exploit opportunities beyond your reasonable authority (Luke 3:12). Or you quit using power over others simply for personal profit (Luke 3:14). You get the idea.
I’ve always favored Pink’s definition of repentance as capturing the thrust of the Bible’s teaching:
Repentance is a supernatural and inward revelation from God, giving a deep consciousness of what I am in His sight, which causes me to loathe and condemn myself, resulting in a bitter sorrow for sin, a holy horror and hatred for sin, a turning away from or forsaking of sin. It is the discovery of God’s high and righteous claims upon me, and of my lifelong failure to meet those claims. It is the recognition of the holiness and goodness of His Law, and my defiant insubordination thereto. It is the perception that God has the right to rule and govern me, and of my refusal to submit unto Him. It is the apprehension that He has dealt in goodness and kindness with me, and that I have evilly repaid Him by having no concern for His honor and glory. It is the realization of His gracious patience with me, and how that instead of this melting my heart and causing me to yield loving obedience to Him, I have abused His forbearance by continuing a course of self-will… Thus, genuine and saving repentance is taking sides with God against myself.
- A.W. Pink, Repentance: What Saith the Scriptures?
In other words, repentance is not private, nor ambiguous, nor unrecognizable. It is as evident as the fruit hanging in an orchard (Luke 3:8). You know when you’ve repented and you know when someone else has, too. When they take sides with God against themselves, they’ve repented. When they pull up a chair with Oprah, you know they haven’t.
What’s funny is that even the LA Times gets this point:
This charade should cause an outcry. It is orchestrated manipulation of serious news and an affront to a public that adored and admired him for his athletic feats and charitable use of his celebrity. We weren’t very happy with baseball stars such as Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez when they, after years of denying or ducking the issue, admitted steroid use. But at least they came clean to reporters whose job it is to ask the things the public deserves to know. No hankies or couches. Just the cold truth.
Armstrong should be doing this in a big room filled with people with journalistic chops and the experience and inclination to use them. We have more than a handful of Pulitzer Prize winners in the L.A. Times newsroom willing and able. The New York Times and Washington Post could fill the room with capable reporters. CNN has plenty. The TV networks too.
… If you are going to ‘fess up, don’t make a Hollywood show out of it. This is making a sham out of shame.
Sadly, this Oprah episode will get a huge audience. We are a society of celebrity gawkers. We need less “Access Hollywood” and more PBS and NPR, but that’s not happening. It would be nice, on this one, if we could avoid slipping further into the abyss.
Lance Armstrong owes us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And he owes it to us from somewhere other than the Oprah show, in which they cue the tears and hankies before they cut to commercial.
Bill Dwyre, in an article titled “Lance Armstrong Picks Wrong Way to Come Clean after Playing Dirty,” summed up the whole situation well: “This is making a sham out of shame.”
The LA Times gets it, but I wonder how many Christians will confuse Armstrong’s theatrics (not to mention Oprah’s opportunism!) with actual contrition, real repentance. Truth is, in many of our churches, we will accept a lot less than this as a substitute for repentance. When someone is overwhelmed by the consequences of their actions, or they regret the shame of being discovered, or some crisis shocks them into a (short-lived) sobriety, or if they just “feel bad” about what they’ve done – we’ll often call it repentance. But it is not. And we do not even need time to tell.
Repentance is not self-preserving – do you think that the tax collectors and soldiers who came to John were going to have to adjust their standard of living by repenting? Repentance is not private – people were actually to start receiving tunics and giving less to the soldiers and tax collectors. But Armstrong is just altering his public persona, from self-sufficient athlete to self-sufficient celebrity who was “brave enough” to feel bad about being caught on a television event. He’s just taking a different tack to privately preserving self-sufficiency.
Oprah has said that she’ll leave it for others to judge whether Armstrong is actually contrite – which translates a Greek idiom that means: “Be sure to watch!” I won’t be watching, I don’t need to. Because I’m pretty sure what John the Baptist would have said, “It’s just Oprah, not metanoia.”