Growing up as a church kid, I didn't see repentance as a good thing. Like flu medication, it was commendable to take when you were sick. But better than that was to stay well. Avoiding sin was better than needing to repent. Goody two-shoes that I was, this was great news. I was pretty good at obedience and following the rule book.
The Cost of Knowing Jesus
Sometime during those church-going years, I got a glimpse of God in His Word: His character, His beauty, His holiness. Rule-following lost its luster as knowing God usurped its place as the driving force in my life. But knowing God came with a painful price: exposure. The closer I drew to Him, the more layers of makeup were removed from my heart. The more clearly I saw His beauty, the more evident it was that I had none.
This devastated me. For years, I thought I was pretty good on the inside. I had been decorating the interior of my heart with a flashlight. From what I could tell, it looked pretty good. But the bright light of God's presence revealed that the heart I had worked so hard to beautify was covered in black mold.
Like so many before me have experienced, to behold God is to behold yourself with painful clarity. Isaiah saw God seated on the throne and saw his unclean lips. In visions, Daniel saw that dominion and glory belonged to the Son of Man, and in prayers and fasting, he saw that open shame and sin belonged to him. Josiah found God in the forgotten book of the law and also found great wrath for his sins. Peter saw Jesus sink his boats with a miraculous catch of fish and saw his sinfulness sink him down to Jesus feet, ashamed.
To know the living God is to be exposed as a hopeless sinner. And to be a hopeless sinner before the living God is to take up the posture of repentance: turning from sin by embracing Him. Repentance is the only proper posture of the Christian.
All My Soil Is Bad
Being exposed before a Holy God was not a one-time thing. This is now my daily rhythm as I walk with Him. Drawing near to Him exposes any false hopes I have in my own righteousness.
And as my self-centered, try-to-be-good-on-my-own sin-nature comes into focus, a choice emerges: Will I cling to self or cling to Him?
Unfortunately, I really like myself. Part of me is convinced that if I tried hard enough and had enough time, I could produce some pretty stellar fruit in the soil I have. The problem is Jesus keeps pulling out my soil and replacing it with His. He plants things in my life, He waters them, He grows them. And it is beautiful!
I love His fruit and enjoy it. But sometimes, I pull one of those Jesus-grown plants and bring it to what remains of my soil. I replant it in the ground of my own self-sufficiency and excitedly dream of how big it will get. How wonderful it will be to know that I grew this! That my soil made it possible!
To my dismay, not only does the plant wither and die, but big, ugly, thorny weeds quickly grow. They choke out the plant and threaten to overtake my whole garden. Turning to self-sufficiency always backfires because I have no good of my own. All my soil is bad. Though I know this, seeing Jesus produce fruit in my life sometimes gives my flesh false hope, that maybe all that fruitfulness in my life has something to do with me. Surely this is a sign that I'm good at this Christian thing, right? But the presence of good fruit isn't a statement about me, but a sign that the Holy Spirit is present in me. It's His fruit, not mine. Apart from Him, I can do nothing.
Repentance Is a Posture
Knowing God exposes my indwelling depravity. And therefore, knowing God requires repentance.
Repentance is more than an action; it is a posture. In my youth group days, I saw repentance as the required antidote when I willfully sinned. But now, it is clear that I don't have a problem just with sinful actions, but with the whole of my ingrown and self-loving sin nature, whether it acts out or not. Knowing God has exposed my permanent brokenness apart from Him and offers me repentance as the highway back to Himself.
For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength" (Isa. 30:15).
Repentance is not primarily about what you're fleeing from but what you are fleeing to. What good is it to run from sin if you aren't running to God but running to your own resources?
The greatest threat to true repentance in my life is my tendency to trust in myself. If I am not actively clinging to God, I will surely be clinging to self. Even in the context of growing in holiness, to choose self as the means to that growth is sin.
This is the problem the Pharisees had: They preferred their own efforts at righteousness over the perfect righteousness offered by God as a gift. And it is also my problem. But Galatians 5:4 warns me that to trust my own ability to work hard at holiness is to sever myself from Christ and fall from grace. Ouch.
Even when the motive is sin-removal, self-trust is still sin. Clinging to self-sufficiency, no matter what the reason, is the essence of sin.
A Daily Habit
This is the battle I fight every day. Will I cling to myself or to God? Will I recognize Christ as most reliable? Or will I prefer to trust my own abilities to be spiritual? Will I turn from wallowing in my brokenness to rejoicing in His righteousness? If I do not actively, persistently, and daily cling to God in repentance, I will be found clinging to my own strength.
But like I said, I've tasted the goodness of God and cannot go back. The profound pleasure of knowing Him through His Word and prayer is irresistible. Therefore, repentance is the only acceptable posture for me, because it is through repentance alone that I can truly know Him.
May we hold tightly to Him today, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. He alone is able to slay our sin, to put it to death through His Spirit that lives in us. Join me, and let us turn from ourselves and cling to Him that we might know Him and the fullness of joy that is found in His presence alone.