The Struggle to Repent

Clenched Fists

I dislike repenting. I’m committed to the concept and I believe it is really important to my relationship with Christ. Nonetheless, I dislike it.

I dislike repenting because it is so untidy. I am bewildered at the complexity of how I have sinned and against whom. I can’t decide whether this stabbing pain in my conscience is a response to the Word of God or just an expression of regret that I have, once again, been awkward in a conversation (painful, but hardly a sin issue). I feel frustrated as I put aside my “right” to feel and react as I have; and as I consider the more selfless, others-centred path that I might, by God’s grace, choose better next time. 

I need to pursue this path of deliberation so that I can repent to a better mind – rather than just repenting from the same sin endlessly and thoughtlessly. Yet sometimes the path is so cluttered with the brambles of my sinful perception that it is impossible to find. The search can be time-consuming, annoying and require much prayer. Repentance might be more attractive if it were in some kind of binary code. 

I dislike the assault on my pride which comes with repentance.  

I have sinned. 

I was not merely mistaken. 

I did not err because I was gloriously human. 

My circumstances didn’t force these actions, words, thoughts upon me. 

I was the person who did this thing. 

I did this thing because that is who I am and that is what I am like. 

It wasn’t an accident or an aberration. 

This is not my carefully constructed self-perception; the ‘me’ I clothe with half-truths and wheel out to convince family and friends that I am worthy of their love and regard. No, this is a glimpse I catch of my naked self in the glaring, fluorescent light of truth. Repenting provides me with an unwelcome reminder of my authentic self. Not that this is all that can be said of me – having met Jesus and being transformed by his Spirit.  But it is still true and valid and deeply sobering. 

I don’t like it. 

I don’t like repenting much at all. The view from the inside is complicated and disorientating. 

The Engine Room of Repentance

Yet one day a friend of mine showed me a different perspective: what repentance looks like from the outside. It helped me see the real engine room of repentance.

She was grumpy. Frankly, I could understand and accept this completely. She was in a hospital with days to live. Dying is one of the hardest things any of us will do. I wasn’t offended by her grumpiness. Yet, she stopped herself mid-sentence and seemed to think about what she was doing. She stopped and thought and in that moment, she changed. Her voice changed; her tone altered; her words became measured and calm. Meeting my eye, she asked me how I was and deliberately entered my world, to care about me. It was as beautiful as a magnolia tree in full bloom. 

In that moment, before my eyes, she repented. 

This wordless lesson shifted my attitude towards repentance.  

It showed me that the struggle to repent is not about me. It is first and foremost a demonstration of grace by God in Christ.  People watch.  They see, even though I may not want them to, God at work with my imperfections.  But repentance lets them see God – convicting, upholding and transforming.  My first thought in the presence of my friend’s repentance was, “That’s why Jesus died!” It was a reflexive recognition that even my marvellous friend wasn’t engaging in natural behaviour so much as keeping in step with God’s Spirit.  Repentance is not, nor can it ever be, my achievement.

Repentance is not about me.  It is a necessary part of loving God and my neighbour as I follow Jesus. My sins are never limited to my inner world but spill out into my whole relational orbit.  They affect others beyond my capacity to remedy or control. So repentance too is outward. It is an act of love for others far more than it is an act of self-improvement. Repentance is about more than making me better.

Repenting with Jesus

My friend was on the cusp of death: a foolish place to repent if one were merely fulfilling the rules of a system. Yet the Lord Jesus himself was standing with her. He was teaching her to trust him, showing her the path forward and comforting her. Wherever we stand in our lives, our Lord stands with us. He faithfully sustains us in our battle to follow him, to trust him, and do things his way – even repenting. He is with us – praying for us and comforting us: as we grapple with our sins and ourselves; as we lift our fallen faces again to catch sight of his hope and his salvation; as we return to the battle. 

We don’t repent to make ourselves better – though it is good for our souls.  We repent because we follow Jesus, and he teaches us to be holy. We repent because he is transforming us, so that we long to love others well and love God valiantly. Even on the doorway of death.

Photo: Melissa, flickr