In recent days I've seen several people talking about repentance. It's been suggested that a lack of repentance has contributed to America being in the place in which we now find ourselves. So I thought it might be helpful to dive into what repentance is and why it's important. I started writing on this topic two years ago, and had hoped it might turn into a book about repentance and joy. Many publishers (probably rightly) said, "This is a book everyone should read, but no one actually will." I get it. On the surface, confession and repentance are not particularly inspirational topics. But Scripture tells us this is important, and my own life experiences show how vital it's been in my growth and walk with the Lord and others. So I'm inviting you to join me in looking at repentance over the next several weeks, beginning with this short personal history.
I was eight years old, sitting in the mauve cushion-lined pews of our church building, nursing a runny nose with a tissue. At the close of the service as we stood to sing and walk out of the sanctuary, I quickly stuffed the used tissue between the seat and the backrest, hoping no one would notice. Imagine my surprise when I returned home and was pulled aside by my father, who held the evidence of my laziness in his hands. He took the time to teach me about personal responsibility and thinking of others—in this case, the church janitor—more highly than myself. I accepted responsibility and expected that to be the end of it.
Yet in a stroke of parenting genius at which I now marvel, being a parent myself, that was not the end of the matter. The following day I found myself knees-knocking, confessing my thoughtlessness to the church janitor himself, asking his forgiveness, and offering my services to him for the remainder of the day. It was terrifying.
Maybe you have a watershed confession story. For my brother it was the long shameful walk up the street to ask the forgiveness of our neighbor Benjamin and his parents for a lassoing incident that my mom watched in horror from the front window. What would have been a moment of pride for our rodeo calf-roping grandfather led to my brother’s defensive plea that he never imagined he would actually succeed in getting the lasso around Benjamin’s neck and pulling him off his bike. Yet there he was, asking for the forgiveness of our neighbors for the rope burn around their son’s neck.
For my husband as a preteen it was apologizing to a church member after commenting to friends about her lab coat looking “dumb”—a comment which she did not hear, but which his pastor/father did. His sister had to knock on the door of a classmate’s parents and apologize to them for the rude comments she wrote in his yearbook (comments which she felt were more than justly deserved as retribution for his severe bullying of her all year).
Maybe it’s just a pastor’s kid thing (as all of the aforementioned agonies were inflicted upon us by our pastor fathers), or maybe many of us have moments of confession that stand out from our past. These are all somewhat lighthearted, although to those of us doing the confessing at the time they seemed anything but. If you’ve ever experienced anything like it, you know the feeling. You honestly do not think you will survive it. If you somehow manage to apologize without passing out or getting sick, you’re sure you will never recover from the horror of it all. And, ironically, you are not sure you will ever forgive your parents for making you go through the experience. (I can now testify that not only do I forgive them, but I thank them for it. But it took a couple of decades.)
My own repentance narrative continues with the nightly childhood ritual of asking forgiveness for a laundry list of vague sins to my brother from my bed at night. I would lie there after the lights were out, look across the hall to his own open door, and let my voice carry my contrition to his sleepy hearing. Having been warned not to let the sun go down on our anger, we made sure to cover all possibilities of sins we may have committed during the day. “Aaron, I’m sorry for yelling at you, hitting you, being selfish with the Nintendo, and tattling on you today. Will you forgive me?” His answer, along with his confession of the typical older sibling sins counter to my own (pestering, bossing, manipulating) came back to my room in return. Thus we slept in the peace of the slightly remorseful.
Admittedly this is the unique narrative of children who grew up in a home where we were lovingly trained in the fear and admonition of the Lord. My parents were not perfect, but we knew we were loved. Because confession and repentance were fixtures in our home, I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and I felt the guilt of my own sins to the point of telling on myself frequently as I grew older. And yet in all of this my confessions were motivated more by fear of disappointing my parents or feeling guilty than fear of the Lord. I knew I was supposed to confess my sins to Him, and I prayed many late-night fervent prayers in the hopes of securing my salvation after a particularly sin-filled day. Yet I was missing something.
Skipping ahead to one Wednesday morning in the auditorium at my small Christian college, I found myself standing in the back row during our mandatory chapel service. On the days when I managed to wake up and make it to our ten o’clock chapel service, I generally enjoyed participating in the song worship. But on this day I struggled to sing, and even to stand with my friends and wait for the music to end. My sin was before me, and this time rather than fearing disappointing men, I knew I could not stand in worship of a holy, gracious, loving God with unconfessed sin in my heart. I had been dishonest with someone, months prior to this particular Wednesday, and for some reason the Holy Spirit’s conviction was heavy to the point that I knew I had no other choice than to repent before the Lord and then go immediately to the person to whom I had lied to confess and ask his forgiveness. I still remember the freedom of walking away from that meeting with my burden lifted, able once again to sing and worship. For months I had made excuses about this situation, but on this day the Lord’s hand graciously pressed me to the point of calling my sin what it was and taking it to the cross, where it rolled off my back and onto Christ. And oh the sweetness of worship that came as a result.
These snapshots of my life are meant to serve as an introduction to my desire to gain an understanding of biblical repentance. I am not a verbal processor and I am not known for sharing my feelings. But in recent years the Holy Spirit has graciously brought me to a place of freedom in confessing sin to the Father and to others. There is joy inexpressible in sitting before a friend and calling my sin what it is--not to have the other person excuse it, but to have her agree with me and remind me of what is true about our Savior.
Now I am a mother of two, trying to navigate these parenting waters with the wisdom that comes from above. I realize, just as in my own story, I cannot force my children to understand their need for confession and repentance. At this point their apologies are generally lighthearted and largely insincere. So I pray for the Lord to reach down and press them in His timing—to gently lead them to a life of true repentance and rejoicing.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, the first thesis read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” So I invite you to come with me as we explore what it means to live a life of repentance, and what joy awaits us as we do.