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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Are these Mark Driscoll’s best days?

What we need is a death worthy of repentance.

We believe in a God of Second Chances. Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel; repentance is our response. For real repentance to happen, there has to be a death to self. There is more to it than just saying, “I did it.” At its heart, repentance is God-focused, humble, broken, confessional, unashamed, open to change, non-defensive. In short, something has to die.

When I recently watched Brian Houston’s interview of Mark Driscoll, taped nearly a year after his resignation from Mars Hill, I looked for signs of that kind of repentance, the kind characterized by a death. After all, this is a man with whom I have disagreed deeply, not only on theological issues (he is Reformed; I am most definitely not) but also behavior.

Driscoll’s approach to ministry and life has been just about everything I stand against. He seemed (and indeed, by his own account, was) deeply controlling, misogynistic, ego-driven and opportunistic. In his salad days, he talked too much from the stage about beer-drinking and sex. He cussed. He bullied. He over-dramatized the need for more testosterone in church, and under-emphasized the role of holiness (both serious understatements).

There were plenty of things in Mark Driscoll that needed to die.

Some things Driscoll said, I had to agree with.  One of my favorite Driscoll lines had to do with singing “prom songs to Jesus” (“I’ll be happy when we have more than just prom songs to Jesus sung by some effeminate guy on an acoustic guitar … “). I agree that men are being largely left out of the current church culture, their interests being passed over for too-often feminized styles of worship and community. Driscoll has argued that the American church is missing the mark on offering a fair account of the good news to men, and I would agree.

I also have to admit appreciating his tough talk on small churches who like to think they are small because they “got it right” (“This generation can be a whiny bunch of idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something.”). We are called to bear fruit. All of us. If our churches aren’t growing, it isn’t likely because we have the secret sauce, but because we don’t.

Everyone is a mixed bag and Driscoll is no exception.  In his worst days, he made a few good points.  And I would argue that now — a year after his ministry career imploded and nine months after his mega-church disintegrated — Mark Driscoll may well be in the midst of his best days.

In his interview with Brian Houston (see the first half of the interview here and the second half here), he seems genuinely reflective and at least from the appearance of it, repentant. I’m sure there is nothing like destroying your job, status and one of the largest churches in the country to make you think twice about your approach to things.

Rather than playing the victim, Driscoll addresses the theological shifts he has made since his fall and doesn’t even attempt to defend most of the worst statements of his worst days (especially the explicit statements denigrating women). He admits that he too often operated from a place that was ungodly and immature. His wife agrees. We all agree. It is good to hear him say it.

In a word, Driscoll seems, at least in that one interview, broken. Maybe he is posturing to regain some place in the world of ministry. Maybe this moment is driven more by humiliation than humility. Either way, it is good to hear someone of his celebrity thinking again about how he acted when he was on top of the ministry world. I appreciate his willingness to publicly reflect on his past. I appreciate Brian Houston’s unapologetic but sensitive approach to the interview. It was a fine example of grace and truth.

This is what we’ve so often looked for in the stories of big-name Christians who get caught and admit wrong. We’ve longed for a spirit of Isaiah (“I am a man of unclean lips”), for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth (we are free, but not free to do as we please).

What we want but so seldom get is a death worthy of repentance. Where Mark Driscoll seems to be digging deep for this, I’m grateful and inspired. He may still have miles to go, but at least he isn’t signing on for a reality show yet (note to Mark, should you read this: please resist). Instead, he is allowing a man he trusts from within our tribe to help him talk with some integrity  and transparency about his journey through the valley.

For that, at least, he should be applauded.

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