The one thing viewers around the world wanted from Lance Armstrong during his now-famed interview with Oprah Winfrey, he did not give them.
Everyone just wanted Armstrong to apologize, to do more than admit his wrongs, to appear like he actually recognized his wrongdoing and desired to make amends for it. People were looking for repentance. But all they got was cheap confession.
For one thing, cheap confession is a dime a dozen among America’s fallen angels, star athletes, celebrities and popular political figures who disappoint fans and supporters by confessed immoral behavior. Genuine confession and repentance are a bit more difficult to come by. In today’s society, confession has little weight. All one has to do to confess, is change one’s mind, decide you’re ready to come clean for any number of reasons. For Armstrong, maybe he did actually just confess so he could possibly compete again in the next five-10 years. Who knows?
What I do know is that genuine confession tends to require a bit more from an individual than admitting wrongs. Genuine confession goes hand in hand with repentance. It’s usually accompanied by a change of heart and a conviction of spirit. And when it happens there tends to be more evidence of it than simply putting an old assortment of words in a new order. To confess and repent is to turn around and face the complete other direction from where you were facing. In the case of Lance Armstrong, as far as we know, he hasn’t turned to face the people he accused of lying, the journalists he sued, the athletes he cheated against and the people who’s trust he betrayed. But I digress. This article is not about Lance Armstrong. It is about the difference between our cultural practice of cheap confession and the confession that leads to repentance.
We live in a ubiquitously confessional society in which we have distorted genuine confession and stripped it of its purpose, a ritual that stems from deep contrition and leads to repentance, acting in tangible ways to live differently. Reality TV shows are a bizarre form of confession where people display the truths of their lives for public consumption and self-absorption. There are even “Post Secret” Web sites and radio shows where you can sign on or call in anonymously to “confess” things you can’t say anywhere else. So what is missing from the type of confession that we are already practicing in a way that is obviously not working? We neurotically repeat ourselves in a sense creating a public theatre of confession where nothing really happens and we spin in circles of the same confessions. And haven’t we been here before? Armstrong is just one in a string of star athletes who’s come forward about drug use. John Ensign, former Nevada Senator, was one in a string of political figures who “confessed” to extra marital affairs. Kristen Stewart was one in a string of movie celebrities who acknowledged cheating on her significant other.
I suspect the cheap confession the world is used to occurs most in spaces devoid of real community, friendship, and love. Without those elements there is a lesser chance that confession will be followed by repentance. Without those elements it is difficult to see oneself as held accountable and cognizant of the depth to which your actions impact others. How does one seek forgiveness if you don’t even truly believe you’ve done anything wrong? Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr, has suggested that one benefit of repentance is compassion. I agree with this because actively turning one’s life away from what led to harm, towards what leads to healing, enables us to see people in a different light than we previously did when immersed in our previous behaviors. Cheap confession can be over in a few seconds. Genuine confession leads to repentance, which can take a lifetime. Repentance is an active and ongoing endeavor to plant and nurture the seeds that lead to fruitful life. Repentance necessitates a community, the people whose lives have been affected by your behavior and those who will walk with you in hope and encouragement as your life takes a new direction.
Genuine confession and repentance don’t happen overnight. They require being formed in communities that value above all else, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I am not exactly sure why we are waiting on Mr. Armstrong to offer more than he’s given. Oh yeah, this article is not about him. I apologize.
Enuma Okoro is a speaker and an award-winning author of three books on the call and challenge of the spiritual life.