“Remember that you are dust.” Year after year on Ash Wednesday my pastor would say those words as he marked my forehead with ashes. Silently I and my fellow worshipers would walk away, thoughts heavy contemplating the sins and failures that weigh us down, and the great mercy of a God who would forgive one such as me. In the years since, I have only come to appreciate that sentiment all the more, as year after year I see more clearly that no effort on my part can ever satisfy the Law’s righteous demands.
When I was young I didn’t really understand repentance. I don’t know if it’s just an immature understanding, or a consequence of how we teach it, but I had this impression that repentance was about making sure I said I was sorry for my sins and trying really hard to not do them again. And if I didn’t repent, I thought, God would not forgive me.
That line of thinking can only lead to the misguided belief that I actually can do it, that I’m actually capable of being sorry enough and doing it right. Such self-righteous sentiments. The reality is far more grim – I fail completely, both at my false notion of repentance, and at accomplishing true repentance. My sorrow over my sin will always be tainted with self-absorption, be it feeling good about how bad I feel about myself, or feeling bad about how not really sorry I am, or feeling regretful at the idea of giving up my pet sin. And my best attempts at doing better will never amount to anything.
I’ve learned this – true repentance is not something I do. Yes, I want to confess my sins to God, with sorrow over them. Yes, I want to ask his help to amend my life. Those are the marks of repentance, the way it manifests in my life. But the essence of true repentance is simply this – to know that I am dust. To acknowledge that I am completely hopeless. To admit my absolute brokenness. To understand that even in my brokenness, some part of me still grasps feebly at self-righteousness not because I can succeed, but because I fear the truth that I cannot. True repentance is to see that fear for what it is – the natural state of the soul separate from God by sin.
True repentance is to remember that I am dust. That I am ashes. That I am a sinner. That I need Jesus.
I can’t even summon up true repentance on my own. It is granted to me as a gift of mercy by the one before whom I must bow. He grants it so that I will no longer rely on my own efforts, but fall completely on him.
This is where I find the meaning of repentance. It is rest for my soul. I can do nothing, so I look to the one who has done everything. Jesus has done it right where I did it wrong. Jesus has taken my guilt, where no amount of apology to God could have relieved it. Jesus’ blood has washed me clean, and in repentance I find peace as I kneel before his cross and let his blood cover me.
On this day of ashes, I bow before him and acknowledge that I am dust, and seek his mercy.