I was recently watching through The West Wing on Netflix during the episode where Congressman Matthew Santos is elected President. In the wake of defeat, Senator Arnold Vinick must stand before his supporters and offer a concession speech. I thought to myself as the scene unfolded — “conceding seems to be in conflict with thinking.”
To concede, defined by Miriam Webster, is “to acknowledge grudgingly or hesitantly” or “to accept as true, valid, or accurate.” In short, concession occurs when we admit that we are incorrect in our present course, despite our initial instincts and trajectory, and are agreeing, often begrudgingly, to change course. In other words, our posture may appear to change, but our thinking has not.
Concession is an interesting foil to the concept of repentance. Repentance is defined in these three manners: 1) to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life; 2) to feel regret or contrition; 3) to change one’s mind. In other words, repentance happens when we change our minds about something to the extent that it changes our behavior too. We stop proceeding in the wrong direction and then begin moving with gusto in the correct direction.
On Saturday I rewatched Groundhog Day with my family, as is our tradition on February 2. The scene where Phil steals the groundhog and drives him off of the road into a rock quarry is one of the most jarring scenes in the film. Just before he drives off the cliff he has a choice to make: A) he can drive away from the edge or B: he can drive towards the edge and into the quarry below.
This visual of the truck and the edge of the quarry is a perfect analogy for the two concepts we have been discussing in this post. Concession is looking at the quarry and begrudgingly admitting that the edge is dangerous. But concession stops there. Concession is wholly focused on not doing the wrong things. Repentance, on the other hand, sees the danger in the quarry and looks instead to the exit. Then, having changed course, it follows the road to safety. Repentance is wholly focused on doing the right things.
And herein lies the critical difference between the two: Repentance is beginning to think differently and to act accordingly. Concession is a begrudged admission that the current way is incorrect. Internally, however, concession often still longs for what might have been. It is standing on the precipice of the quarry and longing for the rush of the fall below.
Why This Distinction Matters
A few years ago some parents came to me distressed about one of our youth ministry leaders and the advice they were giving in small group settings. The parents had caught their teens smoking pot and in the midst of unpacking the decision-making that led up to this, they discovered a strange authorization moment.
These teens had first spoken with their youth leader about the ethics of marijuana use. At the time, our state viewed pot as illegal and therefore it was off limits to these teens for recreational use. But here is where the conversation got weird. When asked whether the teens should pursue pot smoking, the youth leader paused, looked whistfully into the distance, and replied, “I know it is illegal, but the law is a stupid law and I think in time it will become legalized in our country.”
This was the advice given to teenagers about pot use from a Christian leader. Of course, this counsel was all the information the teens needed to continue pursuing pot in their recreational time.
How do we make sense of this type of conversation with a small group leader about an issue like this? My read of things was that this was a leader who got “saved” through concession, not through repentance. They admitted, begrudgingly, that a former life was incorrect, but still stood on the precipice of the quarry and longed for a different universe where “falling to your demise” could be the right way. And so, this youth leader gave advice out of concession, not repentance.
Thinking Requires Repentance
Thinking is going to require repentance along the way. It is not enough to not do the wrong things. Thinking requires that we turn and follow the right things, the right path, the right ideals. And, when people ask us to give counsel out of our thinking, what is helpful is to give counsel out of repentance.
It seems to me that the battles in thinking are not won and lost on discussions about “which are the right things and which are the wrong things?” The battles are won by people trying to live out of the right things and lost by people who are still whistfully longing for the good old days — the days before the concession speech —when they could enjoy the momentary fruits of the wrong things.