“What’s it supposed to look like?” a Christian friend questioned me from across the table one day at lunch.
In discussing his recently failed marriage, I suggested that he had not repented of his own wrongdoing in the messy ordeal. He seemed overly focused on his ex-wife’s wrongs, while he had barely mentioned his own shortcomings. I grieved over my friend’s broken marriage but also over his unrepentant heart. Unfortunately, I see unrepentant attitudes becoming more and more common among the conflict-filled lives Christians lead today.
In Is. 30:15, we are told, “In repentance and rest is your salvation.” In other words, the road to a restored relationship with God and with others begins with repentance. Denying sin separates us from God in our day-to-day walks with Him; repentance and confession bring reconciliation.
If repentance is so important in our relationships with God and with others—especially those we love most— why is it so difficult to do? Perhaps one of the answers lies in our inability to answer the question my friend asked me: What does repentance look like? If we don’t know what repentance should look like in our own hearts and lives, we’ll have a difficult time recognizing whether or not we are truly repentant.
What Repentance Is . . . and Isn’t
The original biblical languages give us some interesting insights into the meaning of the word repentance. The Hebrew words nacham and shub and the Greek word metanoeo are all translated “repent” in our Bible. In the Old Testament, nacham denotes a change of mind or heart, while shub indicates a turning away from evil and then a turning to God. In the New Testament, metanoeo means a change of one’s mind or purpose. Repentance, then, is the inner change of one’s mind and heart that results in outwardly turning away from sin and turning toward God.
Notice in this definition that the focus is on my actions and attitudes, not someone else’s. This is a key in understanding what it means to repent. Blaming someone else is not repentance. Crying is not repentance. Even feeling sorry for people who’ve been hurt by our sin is not necessarily repentance. True repentance is the inner focus of my heart on my own sin—realizing the pain and separation I have caused in a situation, feeling sorry about my wrong actions and attitudes, and being willing to turn away from my sin. It is recognizing and dealing with the plank in my own eye before trying to remove the speck in my brother’s eye (Mt. 7:3–5).
Aspects of Repentance
Here’s what true repentance should look like in our lives:
Grieving over my sin. When we realize how much our sin hurts God and other people, it should cause deep grief within us. In Ps. 51:3–4, King David stated, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
David did not ignore or gloss over his sins of adultery and murder once God brought them to his attention. He faced them squarely, looked at the horrible results of his evil acts, and grieved over the hurt he had caused, especially his sins against God. Though David also sinned against people, the severity of his sin against God was almost more than he could bear.
In their book Rekindled, NBA general manager Pat Williams and his wife, Jill, tell how they resurrected an almost dead marriage. One day Jill told Pat of her lack of love for him and her apathy about their marriage. Pat was driven to his knees before God. He began jotting down in a notebook all the specific ways he had sinned against Jill during their 10 years of marriage. As he meditated on this list, Pat realized that “he himself had been the man who was tearing that relationship asunder.” The reality of his own sins and the hurts he had caused his wife tore his heart apart.
The hurts and heartaches brought on by our sin should be almost more than we can bear, too. We would also benefit by writing down the specific ways we have sinned against God and other people in thought, word, and deed. Listing these offenses will help us see the severity of our sins and give us a starting point for the next aspect of repentance—confession.
Confession. Grieving over our sin should create a desire to confess our sin to God and to those we have offended. Confession means we agree with God that our attitudes, words, or actions have been wrong. In the latter part of Ps. 51:4, David states, “You are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” David’s attitude here comes through loud and clear: “God, You are right in judging me, because I have been dreadfully wrong!” Once David realized the horror of his wrong actions, he openly agreed with God about his sin.
Not only did David agree with God about his sin, but he also agreed with others about it. Nathan accused David of having Uriah killed and then taking his wife. David replied to the prophet in humility, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13).
As a young Christian, I attended a weekly Bible study where the leader gave members of the group an opportunity to share how God was working in their lives. One week a brother in Christ solemnly stood and confessed that he had committed fornication the week before. Most of us were speechless at this brother’s admission, but our group leader spoke to him with kind words of encouragement and restoration. As hard as it was for this young man to admit his sin, we all learned from his experience. We also saw our leader respond graciously and gently, and the young man experienced the truth described in Prov. 28:13: “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
Amidst the stench of sin, confession is a breath of fresh air. If we are truly repentant, we will humbly agree with God and with others about our sins. Only the fresh air of confession will cleanse our hurting relationships. We must breathe deeply and frequently of confession.
Calling to God for inward change. Once we have confessed our sin, we should have a desire to forsake our sinful habits and replace them with godly ones. As we look through Psalm 51, we see David crying out to God for inward change. In verse 2 he asks God “to wash away all my iniquity.” In verse 6 he prays, “Teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” And in verse 10 he asks God to “create in me a pure heart.” David wanted God to replace the evil within him with God-honoring attitudes and actions.
As a 19-year-old air force airman, my self-centered life was characterized by dissatisfaction. I worked at a “boring” desk job and lived around other unhappy airmen who gave themselves to all sorts of sinful pleasures. Then one night I heard a clear presentation of the gospel message and placed my trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I asked God to take away my sinful, self-centered desires and replace them with His desires for me.
The next morning when I awoke, I was still living amidst my unhappy neighbors. I walked to the same desk job. My outward circumstances hadn’t changed a bit, but over the weeks and months that followed, my inner attitudes changed. My desk job became a place to learn endurance, to share my new faith in Christ, and to glorify God. I began to see my neighbors as lost people who needed to hear the life-giving message of the gospel. God answered my cry for inner change and gave my life meaning and purpose by transforming my self-centered attitudes into God-centered ones.
In his book Understanding People, Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr. says this about our need for inward change:
Repentance involves much harder work than apologizing for losing our temper and promising never to do it again. Sin hidden from view needs to be surgically removed like a tumor.
God is the surgeon who can remove the tumor of sin from within our hearts. We must allow Him to do His supernatural surgery in us so that we can overcome our sinful nature.
Only God, with our willing obedience, can transform our hideous, sinful habits into channels of blessing to others. No doubt we will fall short as we strive to change, but the inner transformation God brings from our repentance should result in consistent, long-term changes, inwardly and outwardly.
The Benefits of Repentance
As we genuinely repent, we’ll begin to see the benefits of the heart changes we’ve made.
Fruit. In Mt. 3:8, John the Baptist rebuked the religious leaders of his day, saying, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” John’s statement makes it clear that true repentance is evidenced by a changed life on the inside and outside.
I recently heard the story of a Christian man who was confronted by his fellow workers. They shared with him their concerns about some of the attitudes they saw in him, pointing out how his pride and controlling behavior would often come out in staff meetings. Although these were tough words for this man to hear, he accepted their reproof and humbly asked the Lord to change him from the inside out. I met this man a year later. I was impressed by his humility, his listening ear, and his concern for me as an individual. The positive changes in his outer person were proof of his genuine repentance before God.
Repentance always brings identifiable changes in our attitudes, words, and actions. Do you remember what happened when Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh? They repented, turned to God in prayer and fasting, and humbled themselves before Him (Jon. 3:5–9). Just as the people of Nineveh produced fruit with their repentance, we, too, should demonstrate the fruits of repentance, such as a changed thought life, kinder words, and victory over destructive habits.
Inner peace. A changed inward and outward life before God and others will result in inner peace. And this inner peace will stay with us even when things are not going our way.
King David was chased out of Jerusalem by his own son Absalom (2 Samuel 16). During his flight, a man named Shimei pelted David and his men with stones (v. 6). In response to Abishai’s offer to kill Shimei, David said, “If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?'” (v. 10). Why was David able to respond this way while being showered with rocks and dirt? Because peace ruled in his heart. David had fully repented of his sins against Uriah and accepted the consequences of his wrongdoing.
I was once in an air force Bible study in which one of the members, a young man named Dave, was arrested for using illegal drugs. He was a struggling believer who repented of his sin and recommitted his life to Christ after this incident. Dave’s life drastically changed as he began growing in his relationship with the Lord and sharing his faith with others. Although he was now right with God, Dave still had to face the consequences of breaking the law, including the possibility of imprisonment for his wrongdoing.
Did this discourage Dave from following the Lord? No. With peace and joy that come only from above, Dave stepped into the courtroom for his trial, confessed his use of illegal drugs to the judge, and talked about how his life had changed because of his relationship with Christ. The judge mercifully let Dave out of the military without sentencing him to serve any prison time.
Just like King David, we may have to face significant consequences because of our sins, even after we have repented. But the fact that we have grieved over our sins, confessed them to God and to those we’ve offended, and allowed God to bring inward and outward change to our lives will give us a peace that endures these hardships. This deep, lasting, inner peace can be attained no other way.
Taking Stock of Your Soul
Repentance is not easy. It requires honesty, humility, obedience, and endurance. Our reputation before others may suffer. Yet the devastating damage caused by failure to repent is far more costly than the self-sacrificing price of repentance. Many broken lives and relationships bear witness to this fact.
Ask God to reveal any sin in your life that you haven’t fully repented of. By His grace, determine to do what’s right in His eyes.