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Repentance!: The Pathway to Joy

“Repent!” That command is not usually connected with the word “joy.” Repenting is a negative, painful thing we must do as believers, a “necessary evil.” There is no joy in acknowledging how I have done wrong. It brings guilt and shame, which is never pleasant. So, how can we say that repentance and joy are more like kissing cousins than sworn enemies? If we understand repentance in the way the Bible intends, then we will see that one naturally brings the other. Hosea is a great place to see this.

Hosea 6:1-3 is often quoted as our model of repentance. “Come, let us return to the Lord, for He has torn us that He might heal us…Let us press on to know the Lord….” This all sounds wonderful. Worship songs have been written based on these verses. Yet, I think we might be misreading them. These verses shine much light on how we typically repent, not what repentance should be. Let’s notice a few things.

First, there is a relational component here. The idea spoken of is returning to Someone; it is not simply a change of behavior or mind. That much is good. Yet, notice it never addresses the reasons why the relationship broke down. Nothing is said about covenant violations. Nothing is said concerning any offenses committed. There is simply a feeling that the Lord is angry, and possibly He is punishing them in His anger. So, they want to “make nice” with Him so that they can get life back to what they want. They can get Him off their back.

Much of our repentance comes because we are in the doghouse because of something we have done. As a result, life has been disrupted. So, we determine to fix the relationship by doing something that will make up for the problem and get us out of the doghouse. Instead of repenting of sin, we are instead attempting to appease an angry God. We return to the religion schtick. We do what we must in order to fix things and remove the anger.

I can remember an occasion (more than one) where I caused Gayle significant hurt. I hate doing that, because life is just not right when our relationship is not right. Life is happy and at peace when she is happy with me. That meant I had to make things right, so I quickly said, “I’m sorry.” I thought that would fix the problem and restore our relationship. The funny thing was, it didn’t. It actually made things worse. The truth is that I was not repenting; I was appeasing, and she did not want to be appeased. I just wanted the pain to go away, not actually to deal with my sin.

Such repenting, if we can call it that, is shallow and empty. Hosea 6:4 and following speak of how Israel’s love for the Lord was more like the morning dew that quickly goes away, or a cloud that has no substance. So much of our repentance is simply pain relief. I will own my failure only to the extent that I can get back into good standing with God (or someone else), or at least get them off my back. Repentance becomes transactional. I do this and this, and you then respond with this. I’ll be more religious. I’ll do good “God” things. You then make life smooth again. You turn off the heat.

This kind of so-called repentance fails on two levels. First, there is no owning of our failure. There is no true acknowledgment of the extent to which we have violated the relationship. In my situation with Gayle, I only listened to a point. I asked no questions. I did not want to learn the degree of pain I caused, but only what was necessary to appear sorry. I wanted to get away from being that exposed. This is also why we make excuses for our sin, or we blame someone or something else. We say, “I can’t be expected to love well when I am so stressed over the kids” or “work is so hard that you just have to accept my harshness and anger. It is not my fault.” I want to do anything to avoid the truth that I could be so hurtful or that there is something so deeply wrong with me.

Second, with no acknowledgment of their true guilt, there was no compulsion to make substantial changes. The Israelites’ way of life, their self-driven values, and their self-righteous pride were all still intact. All that was needed was some religious window dressing. Exposure is painful, but so is change, especially when the necessary place of change is so close to the heart. If my sinful behavior is not my fault but the fault of circumstances, I can’t be expected to change. But, if I am the only one to blame, then the weight is now on me alone, and the more of my sin I see, the weightier it becomes. We are now dealing not with what we do but with who we are, which leads to a deep sense of shame.

“If I am in Christ through faith, then I receive not just approval, but the eternal delight of that Judge who is now my loving adoptive Father.”

Here is where the Gospel must come into play. We approach repentance far too often with only our own resources and defense mechanisms or our own ability to make the necessary changes. That leaves us helpless. If I am on my own, I cannot invite exposure. I must sense that I am justified and acceptable before God. I have to think that I am okay with Him. Exposed sin, especially if it is serious, gravely threatens that sense of justification. The Gospel alone provides me the tools to repent of sin. In Christ alone I am justified, fully, forever. In Christ alone my sins are ALL forgiven and cleansed. In Christ alone I am accepted in the presence of the Holy Judge and gain total and complete approval. If I am in Christ through faith, then I receive not just approval, but the eternal delight of that Judge who is now my loving adoptive Father.

When I am standing on these Gospel truths, exposure of sin does not devastate me, because Jesus has already dealt with it entirely. When I believe and rest in my identity in Christ, my approval or acceptance is not threatened by exposure, because my approval and acceptance are based on what Someone else accomplished. Only when I stand firm in the finished work of Jesus can I own the sinful realities of my heart without fear of rejection or shame. I stand in my union with Christ, which covers all shame and guarantees I will never be rejected.
In light of the Gospel, true repentance looks like this. First there is an owning of sin in all of its ugliness. The repentant one will want to know the depth of hurt he/she caused, and he can because in Christ it is no longer a threat to His peace. In love he wants to deal with the real causes of relational breakdown. Secondly, because of love, he then mourns over that sin and the pain it caused. Thirdly, he/she runs to Jesus, once again securing his identity in all that Christ has accomplished and promised, seeing his sin in the light of the lavish grace supplied to him in Christ. Finally, in faith he moves towards the one he has hurt, striving to love better by faith, not to appease anger, but to bring joy and well-being to the one loved.

With a reconciled relationship, the joy flows. When a broken relationship is made right, there is no greater joy. The barriers of guilt and hurt are removed, not covered over. A new sense of freedom comes to the relationship. No wonder that when the prodigal son returned to his estranged father and their relationship was restored, a feast commenced.

Our great joy is found in a relationship with our Heavenly Father characterized by freedom from fear, the absence of shame and guilt, and delighting in one another. This only comes through a confident faith in all Jesus has done to reconcile us to the Father. Repentance is a lifestyle of owning and grieving our sin, leaving that sin and embracing the truth of who we are in Christ, and returning in humility and joy to the One we truly love.

Here’s how Hosea puts it a little later in 14:1-3: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.’” This is so much better. And God responds with lavish mercy, refreshment and blessing. The joy flows. May we find that same joy as we return to Him.