The average human being does not find repentance easy. We may know, deep down, that we have plenty of which to repent but our natural tendency isn’t to humbly and honestly come to the Lord and those we have offended. Our inclination, all too often, is to pretend we’re not that bad, to hide what we’ve done in the hope that people’s interest will swiftly pass or to deflect attention on to the sin of others. It’s what we see at the fall – Adam and Eve trying to secrete themselves in the garden as if God doesn’t already know full well where they are and then, once the conversation begins, trying to blame each other, the devil, even God himself for the actions for which they alone are responsible. It’s what we see in our own churches, our communities, our own lives, day by day.
Such thinking plays out in many forms. In the family home, a spouse says, “I’m sorry I was angry, but I’m under a lot of stress”. In friendship circles, a companion mumbles, “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you hurt me too”. In the public arena, spokespeople confident proclaim, “We accept that we have acted wrongly and are truly sorry for the distress caused but we will not be deflected from our aims …”. Such words have a superficial appearance of godliness but they leave hurts unhealed, relationships unresolved and debates stalled. The problem? One little word: but.
Complex relationships – simple call
True repentance does not require us to ignore the complexity of this broken world. Often in a relationship there can be fault on both sides (though it’s worth remembering that’s not always the case). Often there will be pressures bearing down on us that are making life hard (I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t struggle with patience when exhausted). And complex political or theological discussion will always require the articulation of points, boundaries and more. That means, in a wider process of restoration of a relationship or discussion of a topic, there will be many varied conversations to be had – some offering great challenge to those around. However, true repentance, in and of itself, never contains a “but” …
Take King David, for example. After his mistreatment of Bathsheba, he could quite easily have made a case for saying he was stressed (it was, after all, the season when kings go off to war – 2 Samuel 11:1 – and war is never a stress-free event). He could have tried claiming he was only human, that Bathsheba’s very presence was a temptation – bathing in his line of sight – and that he couldn’t have been expected to resist. He could have made a political point about his authority as king. And, maybe, the prophet Nathan knew some of these risks – that’s why he went in with a parable rather than an accusation! But the resulting repentance, as seen in Psalm 51, doesn’t contain a hint of self-justification. There we see a man simply saying: I sinned, I am unclean, please forgive me.
If we’re tempted to think that David may be an exception, it’s worth reflecting on the Prodigal Son of Luke 15. He didn’t try to deny, excuse or explain his conduct, his words were simply: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v21).
Biblical repentance involves us owning our sin, confessing our sin, seeking forgiveness for our sin – no strings attached. It is a chance to lay our transgressions before the Lord (and those who have been hurt) without any trappings that seek to deflect or deny. It an opportunity to acknowledge the depths of our rebellion, owning the consequences of our actions and words. And, in the process, to know the beauty of true forgiveness and move closer to real reconciliation with those we have hurt.
It’s far harder for our wayward hearts to repent biblically than it is to say sorry with a “but”. But it’s far more alluring and effective, too. After all, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy”. (Proverbs 28:13)