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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Repentance Game, Part 1: Genuine Change vs. Playing the Game

There are many different wrong interpretations about the Christian concept of repentance after sin, but in my opinion, the worst of all is the idea that the concept is the same thing as merely saying you're sorry to God and having done with it. With such a noncommittal concept in mind, it can become easy to make excuses for continued sin, so long as each time sin is committed, we tell God that we are sorry for doing it.  This is a trap, and it has the potential to destroy us if we let it.

Repentance and Conversion

The word repentance itself means, in its most historical sense, to become penitent or to be filled with sorrow and regret.  So, in that sense, it is being correctly used to mean the feeling of being sorry, which causes us to apologize.  However, God has not called us to be continually sorry or ashamed about the sin in our life, to constantly apologize, or to constantly have something in our lives we need to apologize to Him for doing.  He doesn't want us to live a life of regret, feeling as if we have not quite "made up for what we did." God would rather we live a life of freedom, without the burden of shame.

God starts with people who are filled with regret, but He wants us to become victors over this sin and free from its shameful bonds.  I believe the word that historically conveys this information with the most accuracy is the word conversion.  It literally means "to turn around" on the path, a person who has gone through a "transformation or significant change."  In other words, God wants us to repent, but more than that, He wants us to become a new creature, with a new set of goals, having abandoned the old life and turned our backs on it.  After such a transformation, there is no longer any shame for an old sin that is no longer a part of us.  With our gaze fixed on the Lord, we can begin to live in His happiness and freedom, putting all those regrettable things behind our backs and out of our sight.

Genuine Change vs. Playing the Game

Beyond those who repent in the true sense of regretting and apologizing, there are plenty of people out there who know how to effectively simulate repentance, perhaps even beginning to deceive themselves about it.  They can appear to be genuinely sorry, to be filled with genuine regret, but really they are only producing the emotions that will get the other person to stop being angry, or to stop making demands of them so they can return to doing what they want to do.  Perhaps such people are briefly touched by feelings of regret, but the strongest drive they feel is the desire to stop the immediate, present pain of being in trouble, which is a pain to themselves.  This regret without empathy overlooks the pain of others, and fails to acknowledge God's sense of injustice, and His need to defend both Himself and others who were wronged.

Perhaps this game of repentance works with human beings, but God is not so easily deceived.  He looks at the heart, and not merely the facial expression, and the thoughts and not merely the behavior (1 Samuel 16: 7).  God knows the difference between those who say they are sorry, even to Him, and those who genuinely feel regret.  The repentance God requires is motivated, not by a sorrow over getting in trouble, but rather by a sorrow over transgressing His law and harming Him and others in the process. As it is written, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death," (2 Corinthians 7: 10 NIV).

This godly sorrow and repentance allows God to bring about the rest of the work--the transformation, the conversion, of the person (Please note, here, that I am not talking about salvation, but rather the change that is seen in the life, attitudes, hopes, habits and behavior of a person who has reached out to God and asked that Christ's salvation cover his life).

 Without sorrow and regret motivated by a desire to keep God's law, there is no will in the person to turn aside from the sins that continue to tempt and destroy.  There needs to be a desire to turn away from the old life and a pursuit of the new life that God brings.  As the Bible goes on to say, "See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter," (2 Corinthians 7: 11 NIV).  Without the will of the individual desiring and actively pursuing righteousness, God cannot work, because He has chosen not to take away our free will.  He will not make us obey Him, but He will help those who wish to obey Him, so that they can learn to obey Him more.

In short, in order for us to be transformed and freed from the shame of sin (and the endless cycle of the repentance game), we must first learn to loathe and regret what transgresses against God's law and nature, and then we must actively desire to obey God. There is still one more ingredient necessary in this transformation process, and that is the active participation of God in our lives, through the action of the Holy Spirit and our conscience.  I will write in-depth about that next time.

Meanwhile, mull over what I have written and feel free to leave me a comment about your thoughts so far.  Thanks for reading!