The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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