Growing up as a church kid, repentance wasn’t a good thing. It was like flu medication. If you got the flu, of course, it was commendable to take the medication. But even better than that was not getting sick. Avoiding sin was better than needing to repent. Goody-two-shoes that I was, this was great news. I was pretty good at obedience, at following the rule book. But sometime during those church-going years, I got a glimpse of God in His Word: His character, His beauty, His holiness. Rule-following was no longer appealing. Knowing Him was.
But knowing God came with a price. A painful price. Namely, exposure. The closer I drew to him, the more layers of makeup were removed from my sin-stained heart. The more clearly I saw His beauty, the more evident it was that I had none at all. 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 wasn’t too bad. But the bright light of God’s presence revealed that my seemingly beautiful heart was covered in black mold.
The nearer to God, the more sure I am of my depravity. As my sin-nature comes into focus, a choice emerges: cling to self or cling to Him. And 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. 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. Hope that maybe all that fruitfulness 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. Apart from Him, I can do nothing.
Knowing God exposes my indwelling depravity. And therefore, knowing God requires repentance.
Repentance is not so much an act as it is a posture. In my youth group days, I saw repentance as a required action when I occasionally sinned. But now, aware of the self-reliant nature of my flesh, repentance is the only posture that lets me move toward God. By repentance, I let go of self and cling to God. The nearer to God, the clearer it is that not only do I need to repent of sinful actions, but of my whole ingrown, self-loving nature, whether it has acted out or not. Knowing Him exposes my permanent brokenness of self and showcases my need to cling to Him continually in repentance.
Repentance is a posture because it’s not about fleeing but clinging. If I am not actively clinging to God, I will be clinging to self. This is the essence of sin: choosing self over God. Though the context might be growing in holiness, if you choose self as the means to growth it is sin. It matters not so much what you are running from, but what you are running to. If self is what you run to (i.e. working harder to keep the rules, creating new systems to not sin, etc.), you sever yourself from Christ and have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:4) Though your motive may be sin-removal, self-trust is still sin. Clinging to self, no matter what the reason, is the essence of sin.
This is the battle I fight every day. Will I cling to me or to God? Will I recognize Him as most reliable? Or will I prefer to trust my own abilities to be spiritual? Will I turn from grieving my brokenness to rejoicing in His righteousness? If I do not actively, persistently, and daily cling to God in repentance, I will cling to myself. But like I said, I’ve tasted the goodness of God, the profound pleasure of knowing Him through His Word and through prayer. And I cannot resist the desire to grow in my knowledge of Him. Therefore, repentance is the only acceptable posture for me, because through repentance alone can I 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 today, 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.