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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Why Christmas Is Worth It

At our downtown ministry this week, I watched a precious soul rock an invisible baby while “Away in a Manger” was being sung and I was overwhelmed by the values of God and his preference for the poor.

It is completely antithetical to our human nature to seek after and invest in the hidden places where the poorest of the poor live and yet this is the very heart of God. He refuses to forget the ones forgotten by the world: the almost-hermit with decades-old depression, the woman who rocks an imaginary baby, the mentally ill one who changed names two or three times in the course of an evening, the one who celebrated her approval for section-eight housing as if it were good news to be poor enough to need rental assistance.

Jesus doesn’t forget them.

In fact, he looks for the ones who look like him and the prophet tells me, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Which means we are left to learn how to love the unattractive, to desire the company of the undesirable. We are also left to wrestle with an uncomfortable truth: To enter into the heart of Jesus is to submit to hidden, unglamorous work.

When Isaiah was deep into the work of penning a weighty bit of prophecy about the coming Messiah, he took time to describe how this Redeemer would deal with people. He said He would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick.

Glenn Penton writes about this. In the days of Isaiah, shepherds would pass the time out in the fields by making a simple flute out of a reed. It was something to do, but also a kind of protection. They’d play it at night to let predators know that the sheep were not alone out there. But a reed flute being played by a boy-shepherd is not going to last long. It gets bent, stepped on, bruised.
Rather than trying to save a broken flute, the shepherd would toss it and make a new one. Same with their candles. They’d make cheap candles by floating a piece of flax in oil. Flax makes a great flame but when the oil gets low, the flax falls over into the oil and then you just get smoke. It is easier to make a new candle than to fish out a smoldering flax and repair it.

God told Isaiah we would know the Messiah by the way he treats the broken reeds and damaged wicks — the ones with personality disorders and bi-polar conditions and divorce and addiction and poverty. From the world’s perspective, reeds and wicks are disposable. “Toss these, and get new ones.” That is the world’s take on those who are banged up, stepped on, bruised, face down and smoldering.

Not so in the Kingdom of God. The true Messiah sees hope in even the most hopeless souls and by His power makes all things new. He specializes in the reclamation of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He makes things and people work again.

And this is what makes Christmas worth doing. Because at its core, it is so much more than warm feelings, family dinners and big gifts. Christmas is God stepping in when all hope seems lost to rescue the ones the world would just as soon give up on.

Lest I sound more holy than I am, I have to admit that this fact grates against all my unholy ambitions. It is also the very source of my sanctification. God has told me the path to righteousness. It is to love justice, do mercy, walk humbly … to fall in love with the people who break his heart. He wants my work to bear his image. This is tough spiritual work for ambitious people but it turns out to be the only option if his heart is my hope.

This is the only path that makes the anxiety and busy-ness of Christmas worth the trouble. So I pray for you and me both that in this season, we will learn what it really means to embody the very heart of Christ, to do the hidden work of incarnational ministry, to allow ourselves nothing less than that which builds the Kingdom on earth.

 

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