The Heart of True Repentance
Few things in the life of a believer are as disheartening as the long struggle with persistent sins. This is particularly true when we have experienced victory over sin in other areas of our life. We know God has the power to get rid of our sin, so why won’t he?
It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes victory over some sin tarries because God desires to teach us how to truly repent of that sin. God desires his people to know not only how to walk in holiness, but also to obey his command to rend our hearts when we fall short of his glory (Joel 2:13). Yes, sin in our life is a problem, but so is a life where we haven’t learned how to truly repent of sin.
We’ve all probably seen a pastor illustrate the concept of repentance during a Sunday morning sermon. He walks across the stage on “the path of sin” and tells us that repenting is not merely stopping as we walk down the path, but turning to walk back in the direction of God. This is absolutely right; repentance involves both turning away from sin and turning back to the Father. However, the illustration fails to provide the posture of our heart as we come back to God. This is no incidental point, but gets to the very core of what true repentance is all about.
In Joel 2:12–13, the Lord calls to Israel, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” In the Old Testament, people commonly expressed great grief and anguish by tearing their cloaks. But more than caring about the proper “signs” of being upset about their sin, God cared that they
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actually grieved over them in their hearts — grieved to the point of weeping and mourning.
In his famous psalm of repentance, David reminds us that God does not delight so much in the outward signs of repentance (which included making a sacrifice), but “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). We’re not talking about the shame and condemnation the enemy wants to heap on us, but a godly grief.
We can be in the habit of going through the motions when it comes to repenting, but these passages show that the most important thing is the condition of our heart. Does your repentance look like a heart that has been rent like a garment, broken and contrite as it beats before God? This attitude is missing from most repentance, and it’s the very thing God is trying to teach us!
How to Get a Broken Heart
It may sound strange, but how do we go about getting a broken heart?
First, we simply need to ask for it. True repentance, like all good things, is a gift of God (2 Timothy 2:25). If we want to obey the command to rend our hearts, we must ask God to grant us true repentance.
We must also be aware of one of the biggest hindrances to obtaining a broken heart: our neglect of the relational aspect of sinning. By this, I mean that we can view sin as a failure of performance rather than a failure of intimacy. The only grief we experience is disappointment in our inability to do what is right, and not that we have “despised” the living God (2 Samuel 12:9).
When we sin, we play the part of an adulterer who looks for satisfaction in another, rather than the only One who can satisfy. That is why David said to the Lord, “against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). David rightly saw his failures in terms of relationship, and as a result his heart was grieved as it can be only when we have sinned against the One we love so much.
Behold His Glory
Finally, true repentance comes not merely by understanding the relational aspect of sin, but by understanding the nature of the One with whom we are in relationship. In other words, the more we see God as glorious and holy, the more we will see sin as something to weep over. Repentance is less about feeling bad over behavior, and more about feeling awe and delight towards God. The more glimpses we have of the glory of God, the more we mourn for scorning that glory.
In the end, God’s plan for us is that we will be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). He will surely do it! In the meantime, he desires a brokenhearted people who have learned to mourn over their sin.