God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1.5-9
I was startled when I first learned that repentance means something more like “changing teams” than “groveling.” It’s not that anyone I knew had ever officially defined it for me, just that the way everyone spoke of repentance made it sound both necessary and necessarily painful–a metaphysical root canal, if you like. But true metanoia–the Greek word from which we get our understanding of repentance–is about allegiance. It’s about giving ourselves wholly to God. Originally it was meant to describe what happens when one army was defeated by another one. The victors gave the vanquished the opportunity to repent and come over to the winning side, or be slaughtered. There were lots of battlefield conversions then. Repentance was mercy, a way for the powerful to extend new power and hope to the weak. It was the offering of new life on the winning side.
Christian repentance, too, is the merciful extension of grace. God has defeated our sin, defeated the worst parts of our character: the parts that embarrass us, shame us, or force us to cower in the company of others. To experience His power, we must simply repent. We must simply accept the hand of divine friendship.
We need to accept that divine hand often. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood features of repentance: it’s not a one-time deal, but an oft-repeated exercise. True, we only need to “change teams” once to officially belong to God instead of belonging to ourselves, but repentance has other virtues as well. We continue to sin, so why not continue to repent? When we repent of our sins, we make a choice to once again come clean with God and accept His friendship. We remind ourselves that we have no real strength of our own, that everything we have we owe to Him, and that we perpetually need His mercy.
Athletes understand this intuitively. You may play for a great coach on a great team, but if you don’t perform the way the coach wants you to, you had better own up to that on your own rather than waiting for the coach to chew you out at halftime.
Children understand this intuitively. You may experience all the benefits of growing up in a loving household, but if you don’t behave the way your parents desire, you had better change, and change quickly.
Spouses understand this intuitively. You may have a fantastic marriage, but if you persist in selfish behaviors that you are unwilling to acknowledge or change on your own, eventually your husband or wife will be forced to confront you and the situation will become wrought with either tension or emotional distance, neither of which you want as part of your life at home.
I once heard a great man, Dave Currie (one of my early ministry heroes), talk about his evening ritual. Each night as he lay in bed, Dave would replay the day’s events in his mind and ask God if there was anything for which he needed to repent. He claimed that just about every day there was something for which he needed fresh forgiveness, some sloppiness or selfishness of which to repent. Notice that this was not necessarily a prayer to wash away his sin, but a prayer meant to reorient him more faithfully back to God.
I loved Dave’s example and began immediately to put it into practice that evening. Trouble was, as I quickly found out, by bedtime on most days, I couldn’t remember what my sins had been. To make matters slightly more complicated, every time I sinned, I was more concerned about remembering that I sinned than I was about taking that sin seriously in the moment, doing what I could to repent of it then and there and to receive spiritual guidance to move on. So I adapted Dave’s method, and began to find time alone throughout the day to examine myself and deal with my sins.
Sadly, there’s lots of raw material to work with. If you take the teaching in the Bible seriously about what sin is–that it’s not just misdeeds but also ill thoughts, harsh words, and wayward intentions–then you realize that we sin all the time. It’s almost impossible not to be sinning in some way at any given time.
Many of us tend to overlook so many sins, trying to convince ourselves that the wrong things we think and say and do aren’t really so much “sinful” as they are un-preferential. But God’s holiness is ruthless. Sin cannot be pleaded down to a misdemeanor. If that sounds harsh, it is, but that hard truth really serves a sweeter, better one: we’re forgiven for it all. If our sinfulness is absolute, then the good news of the Gospel of God is that His grace is absolutely, overwhelmingly sufficient to remove every inkblot from our sin-stained souls.
This is why a true realization of God’s grace is so stunning: all of us are so far off His mark for perfection that we truly have no hope whatsoever of being saved. Except by His grace, His mercy, and His forgiveness. Since every one of our mean thoughts is enough to remove us from His original plan of intended perfection for humanity, and since we have those kinds of thoughts a hundred thousand times a year, we know that He is serious about grace.
I repent twenty or thirty times a day, sometimes more. I don’t even count, really, because counting misses the point. The point is not that I sin; the point is that I repent. When we sin, we must repent. Not just to receive forgiveness, but to be continually realigned with God in Heaven who reaches down beyond the boundary of power, lifts us up in weakness, and loans us His strength.
Lent is the season in which we are extra-mindful of our need for ongoing repentance. It’s the training ground for which we prepare for the rest of the year, for a lifestyle of ongoing allegiance and re-orientation to the purposes of God. But remember that this repentance is not a groveling, but a reception of mercy and strength from the God who gives life to those who have been defeated.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.