The last couple of posts I’ve written have looked at some habits I am cultivating to help me live a better life. Self-improvement is fine and I have plenty of room for improvement, but my motivation is not primarily to attain to an improved self.
My motivation to change is based on repentance.
Oddly, repentance is not commonly discussed on Christian blogs, or even in churches. This is weird because it is the foundation of Jesus’ message to us:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 ESV)
Jesus consistently called everyone to repent, a concept that entails ‘a change of mind’ and both turning away from sin and toward God. Nobody is exempt, all of us sin and so all of us need to turn from that sin and re-orient our lives Godward. It is a deep change of heart which then results in changed behaviour as we live according to new priorities.
This is the demand of Jesus to every soul: Repent. Be changed deep within. Replace all God-dishonoring, Christ-belittling perceptions and dispositions and purposes with God-treasuring, Christ-exalting ones. (Thoughts on Jesus’ Demand to Repent by John Piper)
Reading through the Gospels it can seem as if repentance is a single major life event in which a person makes a total break with their old sinful ways and from then on lives fully devoted to God. Life experience and a closer look at the New testament shows this to be an inaccurate idea. The Apostle John writes:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9 ESV)
This clearly indicates that followers of Christ still sin and need to repent and confess their sin. For some church traditions repentance and confession can be a weekly occurrence, my own church does not have a formal confession tradition so this can easily be overlooked. Perhaps closer accountability might have pulled me up sooner, I’m not sure.
I suspect that I needed to hit rock bottom to force me to face a multitude of sins in my life. The Bible refers to the Israelites as being stiff-necked (Exodus 32:9), in other words ‘perversely obstinate’ and even resisting the Holy Spirit (see Acts 7:51) — a description which also fits me. While I may never know for sure, it could be that my annus horribilis was necessary to force me to either turn towards God or turn fully away from Him and so seal my fate.
So this Lent I am moving through an unplanned process of repentance and pruning. (I was going to use the word ‘refining’ but there is nothing refined about this process). The hardest parts of last year were due to depression, something I cannot control. The hardest parts now are seeing all the choice points at which I gave in to foolish, selfish and sinful decisions which I justified to myself because I felt too weak to choose better. That is a lie.
Some choices result in a harder path than others, but the first step along those paths is often no more difficult than the first step down an easy path that leads to destruction. Depression does impair decision making, yet I was still able to make the choice of asking my wife to help me get treatment rather than taking the overdose I had in my hands. I’m sure grace played a large part in that also, why did I not allow God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit help me in other decisions?
Repentance is hard to walk through, it involves brokenness and humiliation in recalling past sins, but it is not a bad thing. To turn from sinful ways and run to Jesus is actually the best thing. To acknowledge sin is painful, yet it is the pain of having a cancer cut away — it leads to healing. Best of all, it leads to acceptance with God and this is a joyful experience even while wounds may sting.
I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10 ESV)
Thoughts on Jesus’ Demand to Repent article by John Piper
The Grace of Repentance by Ray Hollenbach
Holey, Wholly, Holy: A Lenten Journey of Refinement by Kris Camealy (a great wee book of reflections on the journey of Lent).
Image: ‘Forgiven Much’ by Keith Johnson (see Luke 7:47: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”)