My dad grew up in a Texas sharecropper’s shack during the Great Depression. He was barely a teenager when the “Grasshopper Wars” began. The winged insects darkened the sky like storm clouds, swooping down on crops and stripping them to stubble. Driving turned dangerous as the roads became slick with grasshoppers. Women grumbled because the pests chewed holes in their fresh-hung laundry.
Some 2700 years before this Dust Bowl plague, a battalion of grasshoppers invaded a country far from Texas. These “locusts,” as the prophet Joel called them, were any number of insects that resembled grasshoppers, but were usually larger and even more destructive: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten” (Joel 1:4).
Joel interprets this invasion, and the famine that followed, as divine punishment for the sins of Judah. He sounds a prophetic alarm, urging the people to repent and possibly stave off any future catastrophe.
For many people, repentance is a last-ditch effort when things go desperately wrong, a Hail Mary pass that might help them to win a desperate game. Most of us have been there, haven’t we? A breakup, health challenge, or financial setback pushes our backs to the wall and we sink to our knees, crying out, “Lord, get me out of this! If you do, I’ll change. I promise!”
But we don’t have to wait for the “grasshoppers of life” to eat us up before we repent. Repentance should be a way of life for a Christian, not an event we save for worst-case scenarios. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, his very first point was this: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Let’s talk about repentance for a moment. It’s the theme of most Ash Wednesday services across the world, and the emphasis of the entire season of Lent. Let me start by saying what repentance is not:
- It is not a promise to give up something bad. Some folks treat Lent like a second shot at failed New Year’s resolutions. Statistics show that only 8% of people who make resolutions actually keep them, and I suspect this percentage applies to those who vow to give up beer or chocolate or TV for Lent.
- Repentance isn’t feeling sorry for your sin or confessing it. Now getting something off your chest is a wonderful thing, and the Bible endorses the confession of our sins, but how many people have you known you have said, “I really screwed up,” but they go right back to the destructive habit that entangled them in the first place? Remember: Judas felt remorse after he turned Jesus in and he even confessed to the priests – and those alone didn’t do him a whole lot of good.
- Repentance isn’t actually about reforming a behavior. An alcoholic may indeed reform because his health has been damaged; not because his soul has been damaged. To save his life, he may reform and stop drinking; but he still hasn’t changed his mind about sin in general. Changing your conduct without changing your heart is not repentance.
Which brings me to the biblical definition of repentance: it literally means “to change.” The NT word is metanoia, from which we get our word metamorphosis – a fundamental and visible transformation in form or substance. So repentance is not about tweaking a little something here and there; it’s about radical change. It’s about being changed.
And that isn’t easy, is it? The old saying is that the only people who like change are babies with dirty diapers. Change represents uncertainty, loss of control, discomfort, fear of the unknown. And it’s not easy for preachers, either. There have been several key moments in my life when I have been confronted with my sins and shortcomings – grasshoppers that had been released to nibble on my pride and munch on my sense of self-righteousness. In these cases, I had a choice to make: was I going to stew in my anger and hurt, or was I going to sit down with Jesus and have a heart-to-heart?
And when I do repent, I feel free. I felt empowered. I think to myself, “Was this what I had been fearing all this time? Why?”
I’ve come to see repentance as a cure, not condemnation. One way to think of repentance is that you are ditching your own thoughts on the matter and agreeing with God. And as I said earlier, it’s a way of life, not a one-time decision. Today simply begins a 40-day adventure in which we are invited to think more deeply about how to live a life of repentance and humility before God.
Joel urges the people of his day to mourn, fast, and weep over their sins. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” he writes (Joel 2:13). That doesn’t sound real fun, does it? But here’s the payoff:
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
That sounds like good news to me!