I’ve been teaching a theology class this fall, and repentance was a topic we covered. It was interesting how many of the students missed this active dynamic of repentance. Actually, it seems many of them confused repentance with sorrow and confession. Those terms are certainly related to repentance, cousins maybe.
As we learned in the previous post, John the Baptist preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”? What does he mean? That we should be sorry for our bad choices? That we should confess our sins? We need to have a clear understanding of the difference between repentance and sorrow and confession, if we want to understand John the Baptist’s preaching correctly. We do want to understand John correctly, because, as we will see, you and I are people who still need to repent.
Repent is the idea of turning. To repent is to turn away from a selfish life toward a God-honoring life. Repenting is when we stop requiring that things go our way, and instead pursue God’s way. So repenting is action.
Sorrow and confession are sometimes prior to repentance. Not always. I think there are actually plenty of times when we need to fake it before we make it. Do the right thing, and the heart will follow, even if we don’t feel sorry about it.
Really, Joel? Fake being sorry? Won’t that lead to the other person accusing us of “You’re not sorry! I can tell! You don’t mean it.” There are clearly times when faking it can make things worse. Because of that sometimes people suggest that we should only express sorrow if we really feel sorry.
The problem is this. If all we humans ever did was follow the desire of our hearts, I’m afraid that could be very, very bad for humanity and the world. Thankfully, we don’t only follow our hearts. We often do, and that can lead to sometimes good outcomes and sometimes not so good outcomes. What I am suggesting is that we should not wait until we are sorry to pursue God’s way of life. Being sorry can make it easier, because then our desires are more likely lining up with God’s ways. When we are sorry, we really do or mostly do want to follow God’s ways.
But we humans know that will not always be the case. We should attempt to do what God wants even if we don’t want to do what God wants. Kind of like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was about to be betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, beaten, crucified and killed. Who in their right mind would want to go through all that? No one. Jesus didn’t want to go through that either. That’s why he prayed, “Father, if there is any way, please take this from me.”
What we see in Jesus is competing desire. He didn’t want to go through pain, but he did want to complete the mission God gave him. So I think it is most proper to say that we humans are rarely ever 100% pure in our motivations. Maybe never 100% pure. We might not feel totally sorry for the wrong we did, but we still might have at little bit of sorrow in there. What I often pray is “God, help me act on the part of my desire, even if it is a sliver, that wants to do what is in line with your heart.”
So what is sorrow? Sorrow is an internal anguish that is usually mixed up with shame and guilt and embarrassment at our choices to behave or think in ways that do not honor God, in ways that are not in line with God’s heart. This sorrow is very important, especially because we can grow callouses on our hearts. There are times when we should be sorry, but we are mostly not. That’s a dangerous place to be. Because if we are mostly not sorry, we will have a more difficult time with what comes next.
What comes next is critical, and we’ll learn about it in the next post.