The Lost Art of Repentance – Lenten Season 2018
“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 art 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 how to handle) and on the other hand, even if we are able, in a moment of crisis, to surrender everything to God we have no idea how to sustain that kind of lifestyle.
Full Surrender or Progressive Growth
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 deciding to turn 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 and cause of the sin but rather the symptoms in and of themselves.
Remember the old saying – Confession is a moment but Repentance is a lifetime.
Repentance is faith-walking. 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.”
That is not the same thing as “physical rest for our bodies” or even “psychological rest for our minds.” Although all forms of rest are good, Paul prioritizes “godliness” or “spiritual training.” In I Timothy 4:8, Paul says to his disciple, Timothy, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
Think in terms of the fight of Romans 7 where we are battling against sin and temptation and we often lose that battle (in our own strength). 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. We need spiritual training.
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 aren’t even hard. They involve speaking, behavior, activity. They exist in the realm of atoms and movement. There are lots of people in the world, Christians and non-Christian alike who have no problem doing that particular thing you are struggling with (or not doing as the case may be). The problem is you (and me).
The problem is in our mind, our hearts, our spirit.
Repentance is the 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 desires? Can I trust Him to make it easy and not have to follow Him with “fear and trembling?” (Philippians 2:12-13).
If our minds are not transformed (Romans 12:1-4) by the truth of the Word of God then it will be difficult to trust Him to guide us 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…
The Foundations of Repentance
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. And our repentance has not only an effect on us but on those around us. Their eternal lives may rest on the quality of our repentance. We have important 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. And that is our life ministry. 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.
Sixth, like all things spiritual, there is an element of faith, hope and love in each step we take. The same is true here. Not only do we need faith in God but we also need to remember our hope. It is the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5:5) which we long for, not just for the end of time but in this life. There is a promise that we will progress. We will go from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). Hope is the focus of repentance.
Finally, the seventh truth we need to keep in mind, which is by far the most important, is rooted in love. After all, repentance is a relational term. Just like in marriage or as a parent, or friend, what motivates me to change (sometimes without even realizing it) is the desire to please the other person. To do what is beneficial to them. To make myself nothing and to make them everything (and they will do the same for me). Because we love Him (if that is indeed the case), we make every effort to please Him. If repentance is difficult, we need to ask ourselves whether we are slaves or bondservants to the One who died for us to set us free. Love is the discovery of repentance.
Those are the seven 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. Hope. Love.
- I have a choice to make.
- It takes faith/trust in God.
- I have important work to do.
- Power comes through surrender.
- The context is ministry.
- Hope is the focus.
- Love is the discovery.
This is the lost art of repentance. 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 (and heart) 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 (2 Corinthians 2:11). 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).
The Problem Revisited – The Lost Art of Repentance
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 to do. 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 myself. Obviously.
And there are even many decisions that we can make even in the ministry 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 (1 Corinthians 10:28). 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” (Romans 12:4). 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.
The Problem of Perfectionism – The Lost Art of Repentance
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. Of course.
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 is the first cousin to legalism. Where is our freedom in Christ? Where is the rest?
On the other hand, Jesus worked hard in his ministry and often, at key points, he prayed all night long. Maybe I’m just lazy…..maybe. But maybe I am 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. How do we balance the two? How do we marry freedom with responsibility?
We can start by not being 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 of sin and evil it is important to do things from a place of wisdom, without condemnation.
That is an important concept to keep in mind especially when there is a lot of things we could (and maybe should) do for ourselves, for our families and for the Kingdom of God. No end of things actually. And that is the point after all.
Yes, we need to make a distinction between sins of commission (what we do) and sins of omission (what we don’t do but should), for sure. But that distinction should already tell us something.
Sins of Commission
Sins of commission should be stopped immediately (of course). In the lost art of repentance the issue is to deal with now, the present, today and not worry about what will happen tomorrow (or even later on today). How many times I have justified my sin, or excused it away, with the thought that I will only go back to it later – defeatist, disillusioned perhaps but still justifying the sin. None of that matters. It isn’t actually about the sin, but about the relationship with God. It is about the moment of awareness that God has granted you.
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. This is where the “art” comes into play.
If you suspect that it is an addictive or compulsive behavior, get professional help (spiritual and therapeutic). By definition, these things need to be brought into the light and dealt with by people who understand them and have strategies to deal with them.
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. Dealing with the behavior is quite straightforward. But what about the feelings of guilt and shame that usually accompany them? Actually that has a simple solution as well because we can go to the cross as many times as necessary. What? Seven times? No seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22). In other words, 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.
Sins of Omission
But there is still the question of the sins of omission to talk about in this lost art of repentance.
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 played with children. 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? The point is that it is never enough. There is always more that we could do. But a Savior complex is not helpful in ministry since that is not our burden to bear (nor can we). Usually it is a sign that we are working in our own strength, thinking that it is up to us to save someone, to change someone, even ourselves.
Still, from a practical point of view, how do we manage our own expectations of our behavior? First of all, exchange your expectations of yourself for the expectations of the Master. Focus on what He wants from you at any moment. He is gentle and humble of heart and he will give rest to your soul (Matthew 11:30).
Let the Holy Spirit guide you. He will lead you in the right path. Avoid perfectionism and spiritual laziness. 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 in the lost art of repentance.
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 (Hebrews 12:1-2). 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 when it comes to your sanctification.
It may come as a surprise to you (as it was to me) that we generally don’t like ourselves very much (because we have unresolved sin issues to deal with still) and therefore we easily fall into the trap of becoming a harsh taskmaster to ourselves (which is a form or works righteousness).
But Jesus is a loving Master who is thrilled with our efforts and sees us as we truly are and will become – glorious and without spot or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). He is a better Master to us than we are to ourselves. Maybe we will work harder under His care but we will have rest in our souls from guilt and shame and perfectionism and laziness. Like a good coach who doesn’t allow us to get lazy and promotes discipline and serious effort towards the goals we have set, Jesus can be a problem to our religious tendencies and often stirs up the very fears and desires we try to keep hidden. He knows they have to be dealt with because He loves us and He has significant work for us to do.
Repentance is Relational – The Lost Art of Repentance
Before we end this discussion, I just wanted to point out one last thing. Repentance is relational not merely moral. Conscious sin is a relational issue in a way that the pollution of sin is not. It is our repentance and our willingness to bear the fruits of that repentant lifestyle that becomes our testimony to the world.
Relationship creates morality. Morality does not create relationship. Relational “perfection” promotes moral growth. Moral growth and behavioral change is the result of a loving relationship with God. Exchange your perfectionism for a willingness to be “made perfect in love” and repentance will become easy and light instead of a burden.
It is a discovery. Like faith. And hope. We need to discover it, nurture it, celebrate it. We need to replace our idols of desire and our fortresses of fear with the love of God already present in our hearts. The more we do, the more we will trust Him, surrender to Him and hope in His providential care to take us from glory to glory and therefore, more power will be ours to deal with our temptations and trials in the context of our life ministry. That makes all the difference in the world.
Breaking through begins in surrender with a full and happy heart. And that is sure to give you rest. It is called the “lost” art of repentance simply because we have lost view of the relational aspect of this spiritual discipline. He loves us. Full stop. What you do about that reality is up to you but if it doesn’t bring you to repentance, an ongoing lifestyle of changing your ways with all the ebbs and flows, the ins and outs, the successes and failures that go with any kind of significant change, if it doesn’t start that struggle, that process, that desire for repentance and change in your life…..well, then go back to that “reality” as many times as necessary.
Talk about it, meditate on it, read about it, sing about it, wonder about it, speak to your own heart about it, ask questions about it, pursue it (and Him) and ask Him to let that truth, that reality, change your life, to soften your hard heart, to make you a believer, to give you hope, to establish a beachhead of faith in your life…..and then simply start….take the first step.
Start to repent. Make one small change in the right direction and then, another, and another, keep going……get some help when you need to…..get an accountability partner, a prayer partner, a life partner who is on the same journey….until you can say with all honesty that you have made every effort to make repentance a lifestyle that pleases the Lord, that gives a little bit of love back to the one who died for you.
Now you can start to claim that you know something about the lost art of repentance and, if you are fortunate enough to realize it, you will realize that you have only just begun….and the prospects are truly glorious.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I want your peace. I know that there is lots of work to do to learn this lost art of repentance 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.
(Go on, talk to him….he’s waiting for you….)
In your name I pray. Amen.