“Repentance from the beginning of time to the present hour has been, and remains, the most positive word from the heart of God!”
– Henry T. Blackaby,
What do you feel when you hear the word repentance? Not what do you think, but what do you feel? Many people feel an immediate resistance, others an oppressive weight. Most feel something negative. The call to repent is not heard as a loving invitation, but rather as an angry and judgmental summons. When this is what people feel or hear, is it any wonder they refuse and resist any call to repent? Is it any wonder they rationalize and justify continuing to live a life that settles for less rather than exercising a gift that could help turn their lives around for the good?
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can recast and retool how we think of this biblical truth in such a way that it becomes something we actually hunger for, and ask God to give us.
Rather than continuing to stubbornly call for repentance in a negative, heavy-handed manner, a safe-place people will attempt to find new ways to communicate what repentance is in order to help people not only hear and receive that word, but to willingly respond to it. Following are a few thoughts on how we might recast our understanding of repentance and walk in the refreshing and restoration it offers to us all.
Spiritual Air Cleaner or Plow?
I’m not certain which word picture for repentance I prefer most: air cleaner or plow. It may be the former because an air cleaner cleanses the air and that is of particular importance to me as one whose family suffers from a genetic disease that affects the lungs. An air cleaner removes toxins that harm our bodies and prevent us from breathing as deeply and easily as we otherwise might. Repentance can do the same thing for us emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. On the other hand, my heart can be really hard sometimes and needs to be plowed up so I can more easily receive the seed of truth God wants to plant there, truth that will enable me to experience and live life to its fullest. Air cleaner or plow. Both speak to needs in my life.
My wife and I run an air cleaner in our bedroom at night. It provides some white noise that we like while we’re sleeping but more importantly it cleanses the air. The primary benefit of running it is an increased ability to breathe more easily. Various reports estimate that indoor air pollutants directly cause or worsen nearly half of all major health problems. Removal of harmful materials in the air can prevent colds, asthma, headaches and allergic irritation of the nose and eyes, among other maladies.
In the same way, just as an air cleaner cleanses the air, repentance can cleanse the atmosphere in which we live. Just as what’s in the air can affect us physically, there is an emotional, relational, and spiritual atmosphere that can impact us as well—for the good or not. There is an atmosphere we breathe in that can help us thrive and flourish as followers of Christ, and there is an atmosphere that can weaken and eventually quench our passion and faith. The latter is polluted air, air filled with particles that are harmful to us, ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving that hinder a life of growing in faith. When that’s the case we need a spiritual air cleaner, we need God’s gift of repentance. We need his grace and enabling power to turn away from those things and turn to the Lord.
God’s gift of repentance is not only something to be experienced and applied in our own lives, but also in our relationships with others. Unfortunately there are times when relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ are tested and may even come to a point where they are torn apart. This can happen between churches also. This has to grieve Father God doesn’t it? I hate it when my own kids are not getting along. It breaks my heart. If this is true for me, how much must it be for our Heavenly Father? When this is the case, the tension, mistrust, accusations, and tearing apart between Christian brothers and sisters needs to be cleansed so that reconciliation and restoration of those broken relationships can be experienced wherever and whenever possible. Repentance can enable both removal of relational toxins from the air, and reconciliation between people and churches to take place.
A few years ago I was privileged to speak and minister at a theological conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was preaching the message “What’s In the Air Makes a Difference.” At one point I shared a word picture of how God can cleanse the air even when we’ve polluted it through sins of gossip, false accusations, pride, jealousy, and miscommunication between one another, and how exercising the Lord’s gift of repentance, along with confession and forgiveness, can affect what’s in the air for the good. Before I knew it someone got up and went over to another person. Then another. Then more. People were going to one another, confessing their sin to each other and in prayer were repenting of their sin against one another. As this was happening one of the leaders of the Mekane Yesus Lutheran Church of Ethiopia approached me with a big grin on his face and said, “Now brother, Michael, the air is clean!”
A spiritual air cleaner is one way to picture the helpful affects of repentance in our lives. A plow is another. Hosea 10:12 says, “I said, ‘Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you” (NLT). The Hebrew word shub is used over one hundred times in the book of Jeremiah alone and dominates the language of repentance in the Old Testament. It means to change a course of action, to turn away, turn back, or to make a complete about-turn (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance).
There are times in life when that is just what we need, a complete about-face. Our lives are headed for a cliff and we need to turn around. It’s in moments such as those that repentance is the best gift God could give to us—if we will only receive it and act on it. The gift of repentance can plow up the heart made hard by stubborn willfulness, unbelief, cynicism, skepticism, and pain. Repentance is a good gift from God. It purifies the air we breathe and plows up our hard hearts so we can live fully into the purposes of God for our lives (see John 10:10). Without repentance we will live lives that settle for less.
The Doorway to Your Future
The doorway to your future: This may be the most effective word picture for me personally in regards to what repentance it is. The thought that there is a doorway I can step through into a life of purpose, significance, and love is really appealing to me. It draws me, woos me. It paints a different picture of what repentance is and what its affects on my life can be. It makes me want to repent.
Graeme Sellers speaks to this in his book The Dangerous Kind, as he looks at the role of repentance in the life of the prophet Isaiah. In chapter six of the book of Isaiah we read the story of his becoming conscious of the presence of sin in his life. Isaiah’s response to this revelation is not to run or hide or deny. He does not attempt to rationalize or justify his sin with spiritual-sounding language. Instead of stubbornly standing his ground, he gives ground and kneels before the living God. As Sellers notes “Repentance proves to be the antidote for the lethal venom of Isaiah’s sin. Isaiah’s first move is the best move; it sets him up for the future God has appointed for him. What makes him so dangerous is not that he was the last man standing but that he was the first man kneeling.” And he continues “The one who kneels first wins because repentance is the entryway to God’s rest, where the best of who he is and what he has for us can be tasted and experienced.”
Reading that, and viewing repentance as the doorway to a future full of purpose, significance, and love makes me want to repent. It stirs a desire within me rather than placing a burden on me. It compels me to ask God to bring to the surface any secret sin hidden deep within me so I can confess it and repent from it. I am at a point in life where I yearn to get rid of anything that stands in the way of me experiencing a future full of hope and life (see Jeremiah 29:11–13). My heart-cry to the Lord is: God, in your mercy, please grant me the gift of repentance that I might step through its doorway into your preferred future for my life.
Praying for the Gift of Repentance
In closing, let’s not merely talk or read about repentance, let’s do it. Let’s repent. Why not take some time right now to pray and to repent before the Lord as needed? Perhaps the following thoughts can help you turn to the Lord and away from anything hindering you from stepping through the doorway of your future.
“Dear Heavenly Father, I do not want to settle for anything less than all you have for me. I want you to do whatever you need to do in me so that you can do whatever you want to do through me. God, in your mercy, please grant me the gift of repentance. Stir in me a desire to acknowledge and repent of any thought, word, or deed that separates me from anyone, most especially from you. Bring to the surface anything and everything in me that grieves your heart and is toxic for my life. Plow up the hardness of my heart. Purify the atmosphere of my life. Lord, I long to receive your gift of repentance that I might step through its doorway into your preferred future for my life. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen!”
After praying something like this, just be silent for a few moments. Be silent and listen. Listen for whatever God may bring to mind and as he does then simply pray and pray simply: “Lord, I repent of _____________________________________ (fill in the blank).” After you do this, be aware that what God says is the truest thing in our lives. And what he has said is that, “If we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Based on this word of truth and promise from God, thank him for his forgiveness and cleansing work in your life.
Repentance is something good. It is not negative, heavy-handed, or legalistic—unless we foolishly present it that way. As Sellers writes, “Repentance is release and it is God’s word of hope set against all destroying words of our enemy. When Satan’s sly, savage whispers assault our hearts with accusations of being disqualified and a disappointment to God, the Word over all words declares these dark words null and void.”
Any individual or church who longs to be a safe place will seek God’s help to recast, retool, and communicate repentance as a gift from God to be welcomed and received, a gift that is an essential element in his transforming work in our lives. A safe-place people love to repent and love to invite others to repent as well so that together we can step through the doorway into God’s future for our lives.