Armstrong and the Power of Penance

Lance Armstrong came (kinda sorta) clean during an interview with Oprah Winfrey Thursday night—telling the world that he used performance-enhancing drugs to help him win seven Tour de France titles.
\”I made my decisions,\” he said. \”They are my mistakes.\”
He said he bullied people and lost himself in the midst of his competitive desire. \”It\’s a major flaw, and it\’s a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome,\” Armstrong said. \”And it\’s inexcusable. And when I say there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I understand that. I do.\”
Oprah\’s interview allowed Armstrong to apologize. But—perhaps befitting a man who, shortly after his Tour de France titles were stripped from him, tweeted out a picture of him lounging underneath the framed yellow jerseys he won—his apology didn\’t actually sound or feel that apologetic.
He did not cry. He did not sound particularly contrite. He insists that he did not dope during his 2009 comeback (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would beg to differ) and denied numerous allegations that he bullied other teammates into doping. And while I don\’t feel really comfortable in measuring tears to weigh a person\’s level of contrition, many believe that Armstrong\’s admission are more strategic than heartfelt: He wants to rehabilitate his image. He hopes that the powers-that-be will shrink his lifetime ban from the sport of cycling to, perhaps, eight years.
And while there\’s lots of different angles with which to discuss Armstrong\’s Oprah mea culpa—a great faith-based take can be found at RelevantMagazine—the saga triggers, at least in me, a more basic question: Just what does a real apology look like, anyway?
This is a pretty important question for me and my faith, given the centrality of forgiveness in Christianity. One of its central tenants is that all of us, like Armstrong, are dirty and guilty. All of us are in desperate need of mercy. And we\’re deeply grateful that our God is an infinitely merciful and forgiving one—whether we confess our sins on Oprah or not.
So when I hear people bark at Armstrong for his insincerity—he\’s not sorry he doped; he\’s sorry he was caught—it makes me wonder about my own level of sincerity when it comes to grappling with my own sins and stuff. I mean, don\’t a lot of Christians fall into the same camp? Most of us remember being told in Sunday School that, if we didn\’t confess our sins, we were gonna wind up in hell. In some churches, that\’s the primary reason giving for falling in line with Christianity at all: If you don\’t, you\’ll pay for it.
What if we judge own confessions as we do Armstrong\’s? And, if we find that we\’re a little Armstrongish in our confessions, does God forgive even our insincerity?
Maybe this is all simple stuff that I should know, but it\’s something that I struggle with at times. It reminds me a little of Claudius, the dastardly uncle in Shakespeare\’s Hamlet, as he wails about how awful he feels that he murdered his own brother to grab his kingdom and bed his wife. For him, asking for forgiveness means not just confessing his sin (which is hard enough), but completely repenting of it, too—pretty tricky, when he\’s surrounded by the perks of his murderous sin.
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? \”Forgive me my foul murder\”?
 That cannot be; since I am still possess\’d
 Of those effects for which I did the murder,
 My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
 May one be pardon\’d and retain th\’ offence?
Claudius, had he lived through Act V, might\’ve considered performing some serious penance for his nasty deed. Public relations officials believe that, if Armstrong is ever to be rehabilitated in the culture\’s eyes, he\’ll also have to repent and do a form of penance, Help Anti-Doping officials clean up the sport that had been so good to Armstrong when he, himself, was dirty. The culture might forgive, but it almost always demands some sort of recompense.
But we evangelicals—always wary of trying to work ourselves into heaven—don\’t really have a great tradition of penance. We confess to God; He forgives us. It\’s a nice system.
But if God doesn\’t need us to perform penance, perhaps we mortals do for ourselves. Make what recompense we can for what bad we\’ve done. Maybe this can slip into unneeded and perhaps spiritually unhealthy self-flagellation at times. But at others, it seems appropriate. At least we should not, as Claudius says, \”retain th\’ offence.\”
The same day I was reading about Armstrong\’s expected confession, I was also came across the story of Margot Riphagen. Seems she received an unexpected letter recently—one containing four rings and a handwritten confession note. The letter writer admits that he or she had taken the rings from the Riphagen house 15 years ago.
\”I am truly sorry for any pain, heartache that my actions may have caused your family,\” the letter reads. \”I hope that you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. As an adult I realize how sentimental items like this can be.”
It was signed, simply, “a dumb kid who wants to right a wrong.”
The rings, it turns out, were indeed very sentimental: Wedding bands and anniversary presents. “We never thought we would get any of the stuff back,” Margot admitted.
Apologies can be tricky things. We doubt the sincerity of others. We may even question our own. But this, is in my mind, is the way a real apology should look. And maybe Armstrong could think about that a bit before he asks for an early reinstatement into the world of cycling.  

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