Repent (and continue to do so)

At its most root level, the word repentance means a change of mind.  In the original language, the NT word is related to turning - specifically turning from sin and turning to God.  Repentance includes a change of heart that results in a change of action (that may or may not always be appreciated instantaneously). 

Other concepts related to the idea of repentance include: sorrow over our sin, forsaking our sin, pursuing what is right, and right decision-making. Other natural feelings often related to an attitude of repentance include: guilt, remorse, regret, sorrow, hurt, and a multitude of other human emotions.

Defining repentance on paper is easy. And it is also simple for us to prescribe what repentance looks like for other people: stop doing __________ and start doing __________.  When it comes to other people's sins, repentance is fairly black-and-white for us.  I am a "bottom-line" type person so it is easy for me to assume what repentance looks like for others. I was never a very good counselor because I normally just looked at the person seeking my help and said something like "just stop doing that and start doing this" (which is true repentance at its core level). My sympathies for sin struggles different than my own were often limited and heartless. To be honest, I simply could not identify with people who struggled with certain sins that looked different than my own. And for that reason, it was easy for me to define repentance in their life with little or no room for the process often required to reach a place of full repentance.

Enter life.

For the past year of my life, I have been the person on the "this is what you need to do" side of this equation.  If you were truly repentant, you would ______. And herein lies the tension: the only basis we have to judge what is going on in someone's heart is their actions (a biblical principle). Yet at the same time, sin is still a reality with which we struggle. It is the Romans 7 tension with which we all live (I do what I do not want to do and I don't do what I want to do).

Let me give you a common example. I have talked to dozens and dozens of men who struggle with pornography (and most of us have). I have talked to married men, single men, church leaders, pastors, elders, new believers, long-time followers, young guys, older guys, fathers, husbands, etc.  I have talked to men who struggle with porn occasionally, consistently, weekly, daily, even hourly.  I have talked to men whose friends and family know of their struggles and many who have never told a single person about their secret outside of our conversation. Statistics reveal that most Christian men struggle consistently with the sins related to pornography. And the reality is that I have only talked to a small percentage of those who called me pastor or friend who actually struggle with this sin. Statistics don't lie.  When I was teaching every Sunday, I assumed that most of the men who were listening struggled with some type of porn at some level.

So what does repentance look like in the life of the man who wrestles with this type sin? Ideally repentance means that this person turns from his sin and stops looking at pornography completely, never has another lustful thought, and surrenders his thought life to the control of the Holy Spirit and only thinks on things that are pure and holy.  That would be true and genuine repentance.  Is that reality? I am sure it has been on occasion. But the more common reality is that a man who has wrestled with this sin will continue to struggle with its power in his life and will most likely only fully overcome this sin through consistent repentance, true accountability, and a constant surrender of his heart and mind to Jesus. In this instance, repentance is an ongoing process of constant confession and consistent victory that hopefully leads to a life more clearly marked by holy thinking than impure thoughts and actions.  Repentance is an ongoing process.

Name any sin you want and the repentance process is often the same.  Let me give you another example. Guess how many people through the years have approached me and asked me to forgive them for gossip or slander? Less than one (translated zero). Does that mean gossip or slander have never occurred? Of course not. Gossip and slander among Jesus followers toward other people and/or Christians (particularly leaders) is commonplace.  Does that mean the gossip or slanderer has repented of his/her sin? I don't know. But evidently not to the point he/she felt compelled to ask for forgiveness for their sin to the person he/she sinned against.  What does genuine repentance look like in this person's life? Is it instantaneous? Or is it an ongoing process in the life of the genuine believer that leads us to gossip less and encourage more? 

What about greed or pride or jealousy or anger or gluttony? What about cutting corners on our taxes or telling half truths or stealing God's tithe?  What does genuine repentance look like in these everyday sins that are more widespread and easier to dismiss?

So what does genuine repentance look like for the person who has an ongoing struggle with porn? What does it look like for the gossip? the liar? the cheat? the adulterer? the pastor neglecting his family for his ministry? the critic? the dad/mom neglecting their children because they are chasing bigger and better stuff? What does repentance look like in everyday life for the Jesus follower who finds him/herself struggling again with the same sin over and over?

I don't have the final answer to this tension. It seems to be an issue with which a lot of sincere God followers struggle and with which a lot of people in the Bible wrestled. What I do know is this: repentance is an ongoing process. Turning from our sin and to God is a daily battle. The call to die to oneself and live for Jesus is a never ending journey. The need to confess our sin is constant.

I am a sinner. I sin. You are a sinner. You sin. It is often easier for me to define repentance in your life than it is mine.  That's why repentance must begin in my own heart. It must begin with me being real with God and with others. It must begin with God doing a transforming and ongoing work in my heart. How long does that process take? I'm not sure it ends in this lifetime.

In recent months, God has exposed the depth of my own depravity in a way that has brought me to my knees and has led me to a deeper and fresh understanding of my own repentance and His unconditional forgiveness. He continues to reveal my sinful heart and my constant need for true repentance and divine grace. And as He purges my heart and transforms my soul, repentance takes on a new perspective.  And what I am learning is that it is not always as simple as I sometimes want to make it which causes me to realize just how deeply I need his grace.

What does repentance look like in your life? At its most basic level, it means that you are turning from your sin and to God. What does that look like in everyday life where we continue to struggle with our own sin? That's what God is teaching me. 

So the next time we hear someone playing the grace card, maybe we should assume less that they are trying to justify their sin and assume more that God is leading them to a place of deep and meaningful repentance which results in a natural celebration of and reflection on His grace.

I believe in repentance. I believe in its necessity. And I believe that it is an ongoing process of the heart that makes us more like Jesus and less like us.  

I love God's promise in 1 John 1:9 - a promise written to Jesus followers. "But God is faithful and fair. If we admit that we have sinned, he will forgive us our sins. He will forgive every wrong thing we have done. He will make us pure."  And that's just the kind of God we serve! 

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