Whenever we extract a sound bite from what someone else has said or written, we run the risk of the words being misconstrued since they are out of context. As a writer and speaker, I've often had that happen to me.
Yesterday on Facebook, I noticed that our youth pastor, Jesse Phillips, had posted a snippet of a John Piper sermon from the T4G (Together for the Gospel) conference that he and our other pastors attended this week. I'm assuming he was trying to provoke thought and discussion when he quoted: "We sin every time we repent for sinning." Huh, what? Jesse must have been successful on the provoking part because he had a flurry of comments, including several from me. Two of my replies were:
"With a focus like this, why get up in the morning? Why do anything? I stand with being completely covered with the blood of Christ, and that my repentance is pleasing to the Lord. He knows our frame. To focus on repentance being tainted is to detract from its inherent beauty. He forgives us, not on the purity of our repentance, but on the purity of his mercy. So I walk in the victory of knowing him, and this gives me the confidence to go do the good things I know he has called me to do (including repentance), not worrying overmuch if they are somehow not good enough. My gifts, my heart, my worship are given in love, and even this feeble human love is gladly received by the very Source of that love. We are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12)."
"With all due respect, I spent enough years dwelling on sin and my inherent failure to be good enough, but the real joy and peace came when I started resting on who I am in Christ, in God’s work in me, and in the empowering fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit. It is the intense focus on our sinfulness that has led so many people to become discouraged with life and with church. A focus on the victory of Christ leads to liberty and progress. It is indeed a matter of focus, but that little matter makes all the difference to me and to so many others. I’ve tasted the sweet goodness of God and there’s no way I am going back. I hope to lead some others along with me in the process."
I still stand by those comments, but I decided to think a little bit more about Jesse's explanation that, "His (Piper's) point is that our motives are always mixed and tainted by sin. Even the good things we try are not perfect…" and "Sin is not just sinful acts, but missing the mark in general, which we always do (Romans 3)."
Even though I would have chosen better words to describe it, I would agree with them that sometimes our repentance falls short of the mark, and I'm sorry I reacted so defensively to him quoting it. Anyway, I was thinking early this morning about what true repentance is. The Golden Rule, "Do to others what you would have them do to you," came to mind. How do I want other people to repent when they have offended me? I should do the same, not just for them, but for God.
So, without a long chapter-and-verse theological treatise, here is my take on what real repentance looks like -- at least ideally (recognizing of course that I fall short of this every single time!):
- I will listen when others come to me and tell me that they are concerned or have been offended by what I have done, said, or even communicated through my body language. I will think about this, and discern whether there is truth to what they are saying. Even if I do not agree or if I think the accusation was unfair or poorly presented, I will not react with defensive anger, but I will communicate my perspective to them pleasantly and ask for any needed clarification.
- I will acknowledge my hurtful attitudes, words, and actions. I will not deny that I did them or that they were wrong, nor will I come up with a dozen excuses or find a way to blame anyone else for what I did. (That is not to say that someone else wasn't wrong too or that their actions shouldn't be addressed as well, just that I can't blame my action on them. I still have to take the responsibility for my part.)
- I will explore and seek to understand specifically how these attitudes and actions have dishonored God and/or hurt someone else, and I will take steps toward restoring peace and making any necessary restitution. This includes apologizing to the offended party and to anyone else affected by my poor example, paying for damages, attempting to repair someone's reputation if I have slandered them, etc.
- I will try to discern the root causes and motivations (anger, pride, selfishness, fear, ignorance, laziness, etc.) for what I did so that I can change my behavior in the future. If I am really sorry, I won't want to do it again, and I will be proactive about this. I will not give up, even if I continue to fail in the same area.
- I will realize that I can't do any of this in my own strength and wisdom, so most of all, and through it all, I will ask God for his gracious help and guidance. I will thank him for forgiving me, not on the basis of my behavior, but on the mercy of Jesus dying on the cross as a sacrifice for my sin.
When I think of repentance like this, I don't see a morbid preoccupation with failure or shame. I see a very good thing, a healing thing, a positive thing that brings about lasting change, a beautiful ripple effect. If everyone took repentance so seriously, wouldn't the world be a better place for all of us?
By the way, I think I have a little apologizing to do myself now! Jesse, I'm sorry for jumping on your case so quickly without thinking more deeply about what you were trying to communicate! I was wrong and I'll do better next time! Really, truly! :-)
OK, to my non-religious friends who have been kind enough to stick with me this long, thanks! I know that repentance might be a theological word that's not part of your daily vocabulary, and that all this talk about God could make you squirm. I can relate. In fact, in my younger years, I was actually quite hostile to pushy Christians who rattled on about sin and judgment. You might like to read my 2008 essay, "Lord, Have Mercy!" in which I tell my story of finding grace -- in spite of myself.
Thanks for reading! Please hit the comment button and let me know what you think!