Some years ago, when I first heard the phrase “bright sadness” to describe the season of Lent, I loved the way it sounded, but I didn’t really understand it. I was already struggling to know, practically speaking, what repentance looked like. Could I just confess my sins and be done with it, or was I supposed to be thinking about my sin a lot—was Lent a time to feel extra-guilty? Lots of uncertainty. So the idea of figuring out what “bright sadness” might mean just didn’t compute.
The question of what to do about our sin is an incredibly difficult one for human beings—whether you’re a Christian or not. Sooner or later, the realization hits that we’ve done something wrong, and often it’s something that we are helpless to fix. So, what do we do about our sin? What can we do? How are we supposed to feel about the problems we cause?
It’s easy to list the theological words that apply to sin: confess, repent, lament. But the church doesn’t always do a good job of unpacking those. The main thing my early training in the church taught me about sin was: just don’t do it. Honestly, that’s mostly what I internalized: sin is bad, so don’t. Not super helpful.
So what I found was that I ended up absorbing and imitating attitudes toward sin that I saw in the larger culture, outside the church. Stuff like, don’t think too much about your own sin. Excuse or deny it if at all possible. If it’s not possible to ignore it, feel real, real lousy about yourself.
But things are really interesting in this particular cultural moment and how it deals with sin. For the first time in my lifetime, there is actually a national dialogue of sorts about how to deal with sin. Large numbers of people are grappling with what it means, as a secular society to deal with sin—criminal sins, like widespread incidence of sexual assault, or systemic sins, like corruption and pollution, or personal sins like the hatred and greed in our own hearts.
Our larger culture is actually initiating conversations about the themes of Lent, sin, and repentance, even though those words are not used. Of course, many sins—most sins, to be honest—don’t rate the world’s attention. Like for 90% of sin the old rules still apply—we are still collectively pretending they’re not an issue, but at least for some special categories of sin there is a collective willingness not only to label certain behavior as wrong but also to demand change.
In some arenas of human behavior, the world is issuing a call to repentance. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are not of this world, but we do live in it. The grief of the world is our grief, and its troubles our troubles. As we become more aware of the kind of repentance that the world is calling us to, it becomes all the more important to understand the repentance that the Lord God is calling us to. Where do these two calls overlap, and where do they differ?
We’ll look tonight to the prophet Joel for wisdom. The book is just three chapters long, and it contains not only some of the world’s most beautiful nature poetry—it also serves as a primer to why and how we might live the Bright Sadness of Lent. As we go, we can compare and contrast similarities and differences between how our culture understands sin and repentance and how the prophet Joel does.
Circumstances that Lead to Concern About Sin
The first similarity to note is the circumstances that lead to concern about sin.
In the first chapter of Joel, we read that the whole community is facing ecological disaster because of their sin. The land has been devastated by drought and a hideous plague of locusts.
(Read Joel 1:10, 19-20)
And a second and even more terrible round of ecological devastation is waiting in the wings unless the people repent immediately.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We don’t need to imagine a world where people living in greed, gluttony, and excess are confronted with the prospect of ecological catastrophe, because of this the world we inhabit! Pollutants degrading the quality of air and water, melting polar ice caps, erratic weather events wreaking havoc on our coastlines. We live on a planet filled with evidence of our negligence and greed. People all over the world are even now calling us to repent and warning us of a day of reckoning—"Repent, before it is too late!” they cry.
This is a meaningful point of connection between the church and the world. To be willing to recognize the effects of sin in the world, to hold people accountable for their actions, and to call for repentance lest something epically and irreversibly bad happen—these are all significant points of overlap between what the church has always known and what the world is ready to hear.
But even at the outset, a critical difference emerges.
(Read Joel 2:1a)
God speaks. God himself is raising the alarm. The awareness of sin and of the dire consequences of sin is not a human construct, but a divine one. God himself, having created human beings in his own image, and having provided all of creation as an expression of his love and provision for us, is calling us to account for what’s happening.
(Read Joel 2:1b-2)
Through his prophet, the Lord issues a warning that the day of the Lord is coming. Where human beings see only actions and their consequences at a natural, material level, the prophet has the capacity to address the profound spiritual dynamics at work behind the natural dimension. Locusts and drought were common enough in Joel’s time and place, but this is not just a run of bad luck—it was the direct consequence of a broken covenant with God. We don’t know the details, Joel does not list the specific sins the people had committed, but there existed a holy covenant between God and his beloved people, and the people had betrayed it.
The connection between God and human beings, and between human beings and the created world, are all interwoven. When men and women, the kings and queens of creation, break faith with the Creator, all of creation suffers. That was true in the time of Adam and Eve, when they trespassed the limits set for them and the ground was cursed. That was true in the time of Noah, when the earth was corrupted by violence and a flood was sent to cleanse it. Now, in Joel’s time, the day of reckoning is once again looming overhead like storm clouds about to break. When humans make a mess of the world through our own actions, God gets involved.
For better or worse, God is invested in our world, and on the day of the Lord, blessings and punishment will be sorted out in the most exquisitely precise, just, fair, and equitable way the world has ever seen. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you and me personally depends entirely on how we respond to what happens next.
God Calls Us to Sadness
In verse 12, God speaks again.
(Read Joel 2:12-13a)
Here it is. The God of the universe has noticed our sin and now he is asking something of us, just maybe not what we expected. When this divine, holy, all-powerful God addresses the hideous mess we’ve made of our home and our lives, he speaks to us first not about our actions, but about our hearts.
We know we’re guilty. We know that justice requires that we receive punishment for what we’ve done, but rather than raining down the dark clouds of judgement on our heads, or issuing threats that we’re “gonna get it” if we don’t shape up, God addresses our need to return to him, with all our hearts.
The God of the universe, who has expressed nothing but love toward us, and against whom we have sinned abominably, comes to confront us, and what does he ask of us? He calls us to sadness. Fasting, weeping, mourning, and the tearing of the heart, all outward expressions of a deep sadness. Of grief.
Amazing. This is totally different from what the world looks for in repentance. The world has very little use for sadness. Sadness is a bummer to those who want to eat, drink, and be merry. And sadness seems weak and ineffective compared to the outrage needed to fuel revolution—sadness has no target, no enemy, no power to shame us into being good.
Absent a loving, personal, and very real God, the only salvation from our sins is whatever salvation we can come up with for ourselves. The world’s answer to the devastation wrought by sin is for everyone to stop sinning. Stop being greedy. Stop using more than your fair share of resources. Stop ravaging the earth, and stop exploiting other people while you’re at it. Just stop it! Don’t do bad things, do good things instead. That’s all the world has to offer. There’s nothing else TO offer—apart from God, we are forced to fall back on our own righteousness, which, apart from God, is terrible. So, try as we might, the long, sin-filled days churn on and on into ever-increasing futility and despair.
God does require amendment of our ways. To turn toward God IS to turn away from sinful actions, sinful thoughts. But there is a chasm of difference between STOP IT and COME TO ME. This is the difference between the outrage-fueled, despair-inducing, soul-crushing, futility of self-righteousness that the world calls us to and the Bright Sadness of Lent.
God is not primarily calling us toward better behavior, or to become better people—he is inviting us into restored relationship with himself. Our sin has estranged us from the One who loves us, and this is cause for deep sadness. Before we can do anything else, it is good and right to weep and to mourn with all our hearts. That is the source of our sadness.
Source of Brightness of Lent
And what about the source of the brightness of Lent. We can see it right through the sadness. When we repent with our whole hearts, we do so in the firm hope that we may be reconciled with a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13a). A God who “relents from sending calamity” (2:13b).
The Bright Sadness of Lent is the hope of once again being close to God.
The sadness of Lent lays in the experience of sin, and how it hinders our intimacy with God. This sadness will never completely lift in our lifetime; it will be there until we see Jesus face-to-face and we are made perfectly, final whole. But the brightness of Lent lays in the character of God and it is the character of God always to have mercy. So we tremble at our sin and we grieve the consequences of our sin and we repent and turn away from sin, but we do all of this in the bright hope that we may be received by our Most Merciful God.
(Read Joel 2:14)
“Who knows,” the prophet lays upon us the duty of heartfelt repentance without offering and assurance as to whether we will be spared from the consequences of our sin.
We journey back to God without conditions, without guarantees. Fasting and mourning are expressions of regret and sorrow—they are not bargaining chips.
We are emboldened to repent and mourn because it is the right thing to do and we repent with great hope because we know what God is like—merciful, compassionate, and faithful.
But God is a person, not a principle, not an ethical system, not an abstraction of justice. Thank God that he is a person and not an abstraction of justice, because if we were to receive the justice we deserve, we would be abandoned to the mess we’ve made of our lives. It is because he is a Person that we can dare to hope for mercy.
Now, you and I are not quite in the same situation as the God-fearing Jews of Joel’s time. Praise the Lord, for those who put their faith in Jesus and not in their own righteousness, the hope of salvation is made certain. For those who put their faith in Jesus and not in their own righteousness, the hope of forgiveness is made certain. And thanks be to God! For those who put their faith in Jesus and not in their own righteousness, restored communion with God is certain.
But being spared from the earthly consequences of our sin is not promised to us. This Lent, if you have the hard conversation with someone you’ve wronged and ask them for forgiveness, you may not receive it. If you confess to embezzling from your employer or cheating on your exams, you may receive leniency from your company or your professor or you may not. If you confess to criminal activity, you may go to jail. That would be justice.
But, and please listen carefully, wherever the hope of repentance is rooted in faith in the character of God, repentance never fails to restore that one thing which is most precious, that one thing that makes life joyful and bright even in the midst of sadness.
Restoration of Harmony with God
Look again at the one thing the prophet offers.
(Read Joel 2:14)
Back in the first chapter of Joel, one of the disasters listed as a consequence of the locusts is that the grain offering and the drink offering are no longer offered in the house of the Lord.
In other words, worship has been disrupted. The destruction of fields and vineyards means that the people have no grain or fermented drink to offer in worship to the Lord. The people have lost their opportunity to participate in worship.
The gift of repentance is the not the avoidance of punishment, but the restoration of harmony with God. Out of his great love for us, God provide us with grain and grapes—a good harvest. Out of our love for him, we add our labor and love to the grain and grapes and present bread and wine to God in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Out of love for us, God takes and blesses the bread and wine and gives us spiritual nourishment through it. This is the cycle of love that godly grief restores.
Absent the presence of God, the world can call us only to try to depend more and more heavily on our own righteousness—an effort that can only result in a cycles of outrage and despair, as we fail over and over again to behave in the ways we know we should. This is what worldly grief produces.
We can’t save the planet. We can’t fix society. We can’t heal the people we’ve hurt. We can’t even save our own souls. That is the sadness of Lent, and it is right to mourn and grieve this reality.
This Lent, as you seek to live in the Bright Sadness of Lent, don’t fret too much about whether you are feeling all the right feelings—don’t make your emotions into works of righteousness. But whenever you’re able, spend time with God, listening to whatever he has to say to you. And if by grace you are given capacity to grieve for you your sins, rejoice! Because it is in the presence of God, between the vestibule and the altar, that we weep. And the Bright Sadness of Lent is that though we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Our hope is in the Lord, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Susan Raedeke is a permanent deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She serves as Equipping Pastor at Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.