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Don’t Put On a Hair Shirt – False Penance

Don’t Put On a Hair Shirt – False Penance

Well, I had done it again, got busted with whatever lie I was telling at the time. Sometimes all it takes is one phone call or letter in the mail to bring down the house of cards. Why do I lie? I want to blame it on my extreme aversion to conflict. Of course, you know there really isn’t a valid reason to break a commandment no matter how you slice it.

Deception often begets deception, and soon you have to be trying to see around corners and get to the mailbox first just in case, blocking unknown (or unwanted) phone numbers, and, above all, always answering the question “is everything okay? Everything paid up?” with words of affirmation, “oh, yeah, everything is fine.” All the while you are hoping to change the subject. It’s exhausting.

In some cases, the obvious happens and you get caught, but sometimes you are working hard to correct some of the mess before it all blows up and you succeed; however, sometimes you just run out of time to “fix” your mess. What happens now? That’s a wide open question, really. At the bottom of the barrel is the conflict you hoped to avoid, grown 10 times bigger and more terrible than it would have been had you simply put all your cards on the table in the first place.

So, you get busted, you hash it out, and when the dust settles you might find yourself promising to do better and being very contrite and working hard to show how sincere you are because you are being extremely sincere. However, if you do not evaluate the situation closely enough to get to the root of the problem and really fix it, you are just perpetuating the cycle. In reality, you are thinking and praying the storm will blow over quickly, but deep down the situation has not been dealt with.

This is the part I call putting on a hair shirt, mostly because as I was having an inner conversation with myself, I kept hearing God say, “don’t put on a hair shirt.” I suppose it is my spirit that understands this reference because there wasn’t any question in my mind what this was or what it was for.

Now, the origination of this idiom was probably in Biblical times, and perhaps we can even find references to this garment in the form of sackcloth in the Bible. The Macmillan Dictionary describes the hair shirt as “a shirt made of very rough cloth that some religious people wore in the past to punish themselves for things that they had done wrong.”

Reverso.com says, “If you say that someone is wearing a hair shirt, you mean that they are trying to punish themselves to show they are sorry for something they have done.” Hopefully, the wearers of hair shirts were genuinely repentant.

In the Catholic Encyclopedia on Newadvent.org, it says the hair shirt was “A garment of rough cloth made from goats’ hair and worn [in] penance.” It goes on to say, “sackcloth…mentioned [in the Bible] was probably the same thing.”

I am reminded of an admonition from Jesus in the book of Matthew.

And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. Matthew 6:16 (NIV)

But how does that relate to the hair shirt? If you are “putting on a hair shirt” hoping to garner sympathy and perhaps forgiveness or to look repentant, you are doing the same as the aforementioned hypocrites. They were not fooling anyone, certainly not God.

In times of conflict, I become a martyr of sorts. I begin cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and picking up whatever I find on the floor that has been cast aside. I’m not exactly sure how to describe it, but the gist is, I suppose, to curry favor in a fashion or to be released from the conversation/argument. It allows me to walk away from the situation, perhaps hoping to find an escape route. Maybe this will help illustrate:

And when you [repent], don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their [repentance]. Matthew 6:16 (NIV)

Putting on a hair shirt is just an external manifestation of contrition, but it is all for naught if your heart is not changed, and furthermore, the problem is extremely likely to resurface. The good news is, God will give you another chance, and when you trust Him completely, you will find Him faithful even if you have to weather a few storms. The best news is, no matter what we struggle with, we can be set free.

After all, didn’t Jesus calm the storm with His words?

…he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. Matthew 8:26(NIV)

And set the captives free?

[Jesus said], “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19 (NIV)

He still calms storms and sets us free from all our sins. If we are faithful to confess our sins to Him, He will not only forgive us, He will heal us, but you have to ask and not ask amiss (just to get out of your current predicament) and come to a biblical repentance.

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