Rend Your Heart

“Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and relenting from evil.” (Joel 2:13)

As we approach the beginning of Holy Week and the end of Lent, I have been reflecting on this passage, one of the Lenten prefaces of Morning Prayer in the Anglican prayer book. The commandment to rend our hearts and not our garments is, I believe, the operative part of the verse, and is critical to a deeper understanding of repentance and forgiveness in Christian life. Consistently throughout the scriptures, old and new, the preoccupation of the prophets, the apostles, and Christ himself, is with the interior life of the child of God over and above the exterior life.

This admonition is part of this consistent theme. When we sin–that is, when we fall short of our potential to walk the way of the Cross in imitation of the Archetype–and when we feel remorse for it, it is much easier to make an external show of repentance than to internally repent. It is easier to make a scene, so to speak.

Imagine somebody being confronted with a grave wrongdoing going into hysterics and ripping their shirt from their body. Uninitiated bystanders might be amazed and such behavior, perhaps even thinking that it indicated some profound spiritual realization. But it would seem, by Joel’s instructions, to be a counter-indication of genuine repentance. It might be an indication of genuine remorse, but remorse and repentance are different things.

I recall as a child being told that repentance was not just feeling sorry, but feeling sorry enough not to do it again. In all of the theology I have read, there seems to be little way to improve this simple understanding. The Anglican prayers of confession petition for “true repentance” and “amendment of life,” and the two certainly go hand-in-hand. There is no true repentance without amendment of life.

And this is why Joel admonishes us to rend our hearts–the breaking down of ourselves, our core, our ego attachments and identity, at the very root, this is what is necessary for the amendment of life. Otherwise it is just a spectacle for the viewing of others, an ego-enhancing response to sin, rather than an ego-denying one.

Moreover, the rending of garments, while it may carry a minor economic cost, bears no personal cost–no physical or spiritual suffering. The kind of legitimate suffering required for personal growth is absent from the mere rending of garments. It’s an attempt to acquire what Scott Peck describes as “cheap grace.” There may be some superficial catharsis in the rending of garments, but if it does not sting, if it does not dig deep into the flesh, it will be of fleeting result.

The Way of the Cross, on the other hand, must eventually pierce one’s side. All that is flowing inside of the natural man must be purged to make way for the Resurrection of the Spirit. The rending of garments falsely pretends to remake the man from the outside-in. But the heart must be rent asunder in order for mercy and grace to fill and repair it and make us new from the inside-out.

It is a difficult saying, indeed.