I’ll be honest (and apologies if this shocks) but I really don’t find repenting easy. Please don’t misunderstand me. I know it’s a glorious call, an essential facet of the Christian life and a wonderful opportunity to build my relationship with the Lord and his family. But it’s never been something that I’ve approached with joy. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I know plenty of friends who avoid it too and I know quite a few counsellors who pull back from encouraging people to go down that path (even when they know it’s right). So, why do we struggle so much with repentance? I asked some friends and this is what we found:
- Repentance confront us with our sin and that wholeheartedly works against our prideful hearts. However much we are willing to accept that we are sinners on a theoretical level, we don’t like being reminded of the specifics. Like Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden, we prefer to try to cover our sin than be honest about it. Repentance requires bringing dark things into the light and that’s hard.
- Repentance reminds us of being a child. I’m guessing it wasn’t just me who was faced with the stare of an angry parent and told to be honest about what I’d done. Of course, God isn’t fixing his children with an angry stare – he is our loving Heavenly Father– but we superimpose our past experiences onto our expectations of God and imagine that repentance means cowering before his wrath.
- We’re scared we won’t be forgiven. We sing it week by week, we read it day by day. Jesus’ work in dying and rising again is sufficient to bring us forgiveness. There is no sin of a Christian that is too big to be outside the scope of the cross. But many of us struggle to really believe God is that gracious and kind. We know we get exasperated in the face of repeated sin and struggle to believe that God won’t treat us as we treat others. Thankfully, the grace that he lavishes doesn’t come to an end.
- Repentance feels self-indulgent. Let’s face it, there can be quite a lot to repent of in our lives! Doing so takes time and there’s a little voice inside us that sometimes says, “Stop focusing on yourself and start praying for the rest of the world”. There may be some validity to that, we certainly don’t want to get so obsessed with repenting the minutiae of our lives that we forget about mission. But we can sometimes go to the other extreme and almost feel guilty about bothering God with our own needs when there is no much pain elsewhere. Thankfully, he never tires of his children coming to him in openness and honesty.
- We want law not grace. At times, we don’t repent because we simply don’t want grace. We want to earn our righteousness by brushing ourselves up. Of course, that never actually works but it’s tempting. “I can do it, Lord – just you wait and see” is the cry of many a Christian avoiding bending the knee – though, give it a glance, and we’ll see grace is far more effective and lovely.
- Our identity is in our sin. Maybe this isn’t the most common one but it’s certainly true for some: we see ourselves as the grumpy one, the porn-addicted one or the fiery one. We’re not quite sure who we would be if we set aside that sin and moved towards holiness, so we wallow in our old self and avoid the new.
- We forget. Let’s be honest, when was the last time someone reminded us to repent? I get frequent reminders to read my Bible and be thankful but I get far fewer regular encouragements to turn round. I suspect I need to get better at reminding others and encouraging others to remind me.
- We suspect holiness is boring. Repentance helps us change and whilst most of us seek change in some areas of our life, there are often pockets we want to see unrefined. We kid ourselves that purity is passionless and self-control is over-rated and so avoid the thing that will enable us to become more like Jesus.
- We don’t see some things as sin. The world encourages us to love ourselves as we are – others are supposed to accept us or walk away – but God doesn’t fit that mould. His standards are high and they don’t change at our culture’s behest. We don’t want to descend into self-hatred (that’s not biblical at all) but we are called to be real about what is and isn’t sin and to do so by God’s definition not ours.
- We have too small a picture of God’s love. He really does adore us and want our relationship with him to be unfettered. If we saw the true size of his heart, we wouldn’t hesitate to run back into his wide-open arms.
I suspect there are other reasons too. The human heart has an almost boundless capacity to wander away from our living Lord. None of those reasons will hold water though. None are as compelling as the call to return to the Father who loves and longs to restore.
So, what’s holding us back now? Whatever is going on in your heart (or your counsellees), why not join with David and start the journey back? Here’s your starter for ten – you can keep it going with whatever words seem to fit:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51)