“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)
“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…” (Isaiah 30:15b NIV).
“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:45-48a NIV).
The Lost Art of Repentance
I like the title of this post. It tells me that Repentance is an Art form that has been lost. People don’t really repent much these days and the little that they do is superficial and difficult. Like an adult still making stick men with crayons, we have lost the nuances, the discipline but most of all the results of a life of repentance.
I mean, have you ever put the idea of repentance and rest together in the same sentence? God does. Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Especially in comparison with the Pharisees of his day who burdened people with a moral code almost impossible to maintain. Already in the Old Testament, God makes it clear that repentance and rest go together and that the key is trusting Him with a quiet spirit (Isaiah 30:15b).
Paul tells us that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b NIV). In our last post we talked about surrender as the gateway to a mind and a life controlled by the Holy Spirit, but the truth is that it scares most of us half to death. On the one hand, there are always issues that we don’t want to deal with (idols we don’t want to part with and fears we don’t know what to do with) and on the other hand, even if we are able, in a moment of crisis, surrender everything to God we have no idea how to sustain that kind of lifestyle.
After all, the idea of a full surrender seems to be at odds with the idea of a progressive growth in sanctification. How can I be fully surrendered to God’s will and at the same time be aware of sin in my life that I have not yet learnt to deal with. Some things can be handled right away and should be but others are longer term, more deeply rooted and need to be dealt with over time. So how do we reconcile those two things? And how in the world does that allow me to rest? It seems like a lot of work to me.
And here is where the lost art of repentance comes in.
We don’t talk about it near enough. We are so focused on the sin itself that repentance is little more than confessing your sin and then turning away from it for good. We make the declaration of intent to repent and sometimes it sticks but most of the time we fall back into that same sin again and again because we are not really dealing with the root of the sin but rather the symptoms in and of themselves.
Confession is a moment but repentance is a lifetime.
Repentance is faithwalking. We’ve talked about it before. Faith is key to repentance but faith in what? How does it work? Where is the rest that is promised? I don’t believe that we should be passive in our sanctification but how in the world can “making every effort” be restful?
It’s a good question but I think we often forget that the word “rest” in the Bible has a different meaning than we use it in our daily lives. Yes, there is an aspect of physical rest from our labor especially when God calls us to a Sabbath Rest. But, in the New Testament, God uses the word to talk about “spiritual rest for our souls.”
Think in terms of the fight of Romans 7 where we are battling against sin and temptation and we often lose that battle. There is a lot of frustration and even anger and a sense of betrayal and grief at the weakness we often find inside ourselves. It’s already good news that we even feel that way since that is an initial evidence of the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But that conviction isn’t enough. We need to repent.
Repentance is surrender. It is wrestling with God until dawn and then asking for his blessing and presence in a difficult moment and resting in his answer. The problem with repentance is not giving up the immorality or changing a behavior or humbling ourselves to ask forgiveness of a brother we have wronged. The actions themselves are neutral. They exist in the realm of behavior and atoms and movement. The problem is in our mind, our attitude, our spirit.
Repentance is surrender of my will to follow the will of God. Giving up my small ambitions, my small desires, to please God and become a significant part of His plans not only for my life but for the world. Am I convinced that his ways are better than my ways? Am I certain that I can trust Him to guide me through the difficult trials ahead? Will he simply take away my bad desires and replace them with good things? Can I trust Him to make it easy and not have to follow Him with “fear and trembling?”
If our minds are not transformed by the Truth of the Word of God then it will be difficult to trust Him to guide me in the path ahead. So let’s get to work and try to identify some basic elements to this lost art of repentance. Some of the following discussion is based on overall themes in the Bible and cannot be backed up by one single verse. That’s normal. In your heart you will know if these things are true or not. Let’s get to work…
First, we need to agree with God that having peace with Him means to be at war with our sinful desires. The peace we receive in the act of repentance is a peace that comes from Jesus Christ and what he has done for us on the cross. It is the peace of “no condemnation.” But that peace with God means war with the Devil. We need to choose sides.
Second, a lifetime of repentance is a walk of faith in the providence of God over every element of our lives. Nothing happens to us, whether good or bad, that isn’t allowed by God and will be used by Him for our good. It takes faith to walk in repentance, changing our direction, attitudes and actions to learn a new way to live in the power of the Spirit. You cannot surrender to someone you don’t trust. I have to trust God in the process.
Third, to surrender to the will of God and to give up our self-will is not a passive effort but an active one. Resting in the Spirit does not mean spiritual laziness. From a place of rest we can make every effort to show the fruits of repentance in our lives. We have difficult work to do.
Fourth, the difference between doing things in our own strength and doing things in the power of the Holy Spirit is the difference between a surrendered heart and an un-surrendered heart. It’s as simple as that. And as difficult. Power comes through surrender.
Fifth, the context of our walk with God is ministry. We don’t get to wait until we have our act together to be ready for ministry. It is in the context of our real world battle with sin and our dedication to the things of God that we demonstrate who we are. Without the context of our life ministry and focus on building the kingdom of God, all of our efforts will become about morality and little more than that. Ministry is the context of repentance.
Those are the five truths that I try to hold on to when I am dealing with repentance in my life. And there is some rationale to the order that they come in. Choice. Faith. Work. Power. Ministry.
- I have a choice to make.
- It takes faith/trust in God.
- I have difficult work to do.
- Power comes through surrender.
- The context is ministry.
If I have doubts about any one of these things, I need to go back to the basics and get things straight once again in my head based on the truths of scripture.
But there are still things to talk about. The Devil is particularly good at getting us off track and rendering our lives powerless. We need to be aware of his schemes. So let’s take a look at one or two of them today (and deal with more of them in other posts as we go along).
But let me start by going back to a key issue. How do we reconcile a full surrender to God with a progressive sanctification? Not so easy. Let me explain.
Let’s say that I make a full surrender to God. What does that mean? It means that whenever my will is at odds with His will – He wins. Period. There are lots of things that I can decide for myself that don’t really have anything to do with the revealed will of God. In general, He doesn’t care if I wear jeans and a t-shirt or a suit today. I can decide that for myself. There is a certain amount of wisdom that I can learn from the Scriptures about daily life (and from other Christians) but it is not an issue of committing sin to decide these things for ourselves. Obviously.
And there are even many decisions that we can make where we decide to do one thing over another because we have “the mind of Christ.” We have his priorities, his agenda, his perspective on the world. So, in many cases, we may decide to give up something that is perfectly fine in and of itself but give it up in order to promote the gospel or simply to show love and kindness to someone else. Again, obviously.
But whenever my will is in conflict with the will of God, I must humble myself and agree with God that His will is good and pleasing and perfect. That is what it means to surrender yourself to God fully. No caveats. No secret rooms. No conditional clauses to the contract. Full surrender.
Now, the question is how in the world to maintain that posture over the long term. How do I maintain a full surrender attitude while at the same time allowing myself to grow in grace and maturity over time? And here is where we have to deal with a few of the Devil’s schemes and add a touch of wisdom to the situation.
First of all is the issue of perfectionism. I get it. I used to write lists of all the things that I needed to do or to change in order to have full surrender to God. And my lists were long. They included the things I needed to stop doing, the things that I needed to start doing and everything that lies between. Sins of omission and sins of commission and the sins of omission were always a lot more than the sins of commission.
Let me show you what I mean…..
- Get up at 5am to pray. Pray for at least two hours. Pray for my family and friends, my Pastor and each of the elders and deacons of the church as well as for the leaders of the ministries. Pray for my family each by name. Pray for the salvation of my friends who aren’t Christians. Pray for the missionaries of our church. Pray for the leaders of our community, our city, our nation. Pray for my ministry. Pray for finances and resources. Pray for God’s will to be clarified throughout the day.
I think you already get the point. And I haven’t even exhausted the first item on prayer yet. And who is going to argue with any of the points there. Prayer is important. None of us pray enough. Prayer is essential to everything we do. Maybe I need to add a few more points….
Do you see the problem? Perfectionism which is the first cousin to legalism. Where is our freedom in Christ? On the other hand, Jesus worked hard in his ministry and often, at key points in his ministry, prayed all night. Maybe I’m just lazy…..maybe. But maybe you are a bit legalistic as well. How do you know the difference?
And that is the key point after all.
On the one hand, Paul tells us that “everything is permissible” but on the other hand he says “not everything is beneficial” (I Corinthians 10:23 NIV). On the one hand, we have Christian freedom but on the other hand we have Christian responsibility.
The point is that we are not to be perfectionists or legalists. In the context of ministry, thinking about the spiritual good of others in the church and the salvation of the lost, what is most beneficial? What is the best way to do things? We, ourselves, are free from any condemnation but in this world it is important to do things from a place of wisdom, without condemnation.
That is an important concept to keep in mind.
Yes, we need to make a distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission, for sure. But that distinction should already tell us something.
Sins of commission should be stopped. We are conscious of the sin and therefore it needs to be stopped. Today. Completely. We may still fall to the sin again in a day or two, but then we return to the cross, to a place of surrender, and we stop that sin in its tracks again. If it happens a third time, we should be wise enough to seek help. Talk to the person you are accountable to as a disciple. If you don’t have one, get one. Or talk to your Pastor, or a mature Christian friend. Depending on what you are dealing with, pick someone appropriate and make every effort to deal with it.
The fact that you are in the process of dealing with it is dealing with it.
Some things simply take time. The commitment must be to deal with it today. Sin is sin. And we don’t play games with sin. But sin is easy to deal with in terms of our guilt before God because we can go to the cross as many times as necessary. What? Seven times? No seventy times seven. As many times as necessary.
But on a practical level, our intention to deal with sin immediately and completely needs to be maintained even if it is a process. You may need to get down deeper and root our the fear or desire that is at the heart of the particular sin you are dealing with. Hard work but there is a lot of help.
The point is that a full surrender on this matter is a source of power to you so long as you do not condemn yourself when Christ does not condemn you. You are freed from the power and guilt of sin but you still need to deal with it.
Yes, I know that you feel like a traitor sometimes. But think about it. Why did you expect things to be easy and effort free? Why did you think that a lifetime of sinful behavior would simply vanish over night? Actually, sometimes it does. But sometimes it does not. If it does not, it is because God wants you to dig deeper and learn something important about yourself so that He can prepare you for anointed ministry. You are always a wounded healer. There is no other kind. Embrace it. Deal with it in the strength of God over time.
But there is still the question of sins of omission to talk about.
This is a trap that I fell into right away (and still do). It’s easy to make a long list of things that I should do but that just makes me a Pharisee. No, I am not letting myself off the hook. I am just saying that everything doesn’t need to be done today. Even Jesus didn’t pray all night every night. He took a rest. He went to parties. He spent time with his disciples. He ministered to people. We are not monks in a monastery with nothing to do but pray. We have work to do.
Now, most of us don’t pray enough. That is another issue. It is true that we are often spiritually lazy. But that is not the discussion today. Perfectionism is. So let’s try to avoid both extremes.
How do we know how much is enough?
Let the Holy Spirit guide you. He will lead you with gentleness and humility. You are free in Christ but you have a ministry (and a family) to attend to. Prayer will be necessary. When and how much will become clear to you as you go along. Many books have been written on the subject. But trust your Master not to be a harsh taskmaster. He wants you to be free from sin on the one hand and free to do ministry on the other. No perfectionism allowed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a long list of things that you want to accomplish and that you think would please God and be beneficial to your ministry. No doubt. But without guilt. Don’t make every omission into sin. Unless you are impressed by the Spirit to do a thing and you refuse to do it. Then we need to have another discussion. But in general, don’t invent sins out of thin air and place burdens on yourself that the Lord does not put there.
The point is to realize, of course, that Jesus is the author and finisher of your faith. You are involved and there is work to do but there is no guilt and his method of dealing with you is gentle (and insistent) and certainly progressive. Your full surrender means that you are open to his leading rather than your own leading (which may be far more difficult than anything he wanted from you).
In conclusion, I just wanted to point out one last thing. I am always aware of that parable of Jesus about the talents. He gives ten talents to one person and they make ten talents more. Well done. He gives five talents to someone else and they make five more. Good job. But then he gives one talent to the third servant who buries it in the ground and, when the Master returns, gives it back to him. But the Master is angry.
Why do you think the Master got angry?
Sure the worthless servant did not produce any profit or fruit from his talent. That’s obvious. But look closer at what that servant says. “Then the man who had received one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you'” (Matthew 25:24,25 NIV).
Well, I would have been angry too. It’s not about the talent, you see. It was about the relationship. The worthless servant had the gall to call him ‘Master’ but he was not a bondservant, serving his Master with joy. He was a slave, an unwilling servant who served reluctantly, angrily and with resentment. Of course the Master was upset.
The worthless servant called him a “hard man.” He figured that he was getting his profits in an unethical manner by having servants do his work for him. Why should he work for his Master’s benefit? What an attitude.
If it was just a question of ability, that is easily solved. If you don’t know what to do with the talent and you are confused but you still want to please your Master, then give it to someone else and let them do something with it. The Master in the parable said, “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers” (vs. 27a NIV) at the very least. The fact that you didn’t even do that indicates that your heart is not in the right place and there is a problem with the relationship.
After all, getting profit or fruit from the investment of talents by the Master is important. Sure it is a parable, but the context points out clearly that Jesus was talking about the Word of God given to the people of Israel. It was God’s investment in his people for the salvation of the world. The fruit he is talking about here are the souls that need to be saved. This is important work we are doing. There is a redemptive emergency that God is dealing with. This isn’t about money but about saving lives for eternity.
But then comes the final bit of truth. “I was afraid” he said. That’s why I did what I did. That’s what the relationship was based on. Fear. And fear is a burden that can destroy you and destroy your relationships. The apostle John tells us that “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment . The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:18 NIV).
If a woman fears her husband, there is no love. If a child fears his father, it will destroy the relationship. Obviously. So what is wrong with this worthless servant? He is afraid because he does not love his Master. He was into religion but not into the relationship. We have lots of people like that in our churches and it is a dangerous place to be.
So how does this apply to us?
We have also been given talents, gifts and resources to further the Kingdom of God on earth. Yes, we need to lead lives of repentance that are not hostile to the things of God but rather embrace His will and surrender to it daily. But all of this in the context of ministry. We have work to do that goes beyond ourselves. What is beneficial for the ministry is the question, not just what is easy for me to do for myself and my own comfort. When you change your perspective, things actually get easier, not harder.
Are you a worthless servant who is doing things out of fear?
Then you need to go back to the beginning and learn the fundamental lessons of the cross all over again. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
How do you know that you are doing things out of fear and not out of love?
Legalism and perfectionism on the one hand and spiritual laziness on the other. A pox on both your houses.
So now you have to decide. Is he a hard taskmaster or is his burden easy and light? The answer makes all the difference between whether you are an unwilling slave or a willing bondservant. And the difference between those two is surrender with a full and happy heart. And that is sure to give you rest.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I want your peace. I know that there is lots of work to do but you will guide me through it all. I trust you. I surrender all. Thank you for being a gentle master who cares for my soul. In your name I pray. Amen.