In James 1.21 we read, “…get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
James is describing the act of repentance. Some followers of Jesus can read these words and say, “I did this once–in fact, more than once, but then I went back to the ‘moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent.'” Or: “I’ve tried to ‘do what it says,’ but found that I fail so much.”
So now what?
The idea of repentance can be expressed with a number of different metaphors. Here are two.
First, repentance is a change of allegiance: we go from serving one master to serving another.
Second, repentance is a change of trajectory: instead of going east, we start heading due west.
In both of these metaphors it is possible to temporarily regress. We swear allegiance to a new master, but find ourselves at times going back. We start on a new trajectory but find ourselves temporarily digressing or even turning back.
What are we to do? What does this mean?
First of all, neither of these regressions consists of permanently returning to our former condition. That is, they are different–completely different–from giving up. This is huge.
And given the power of indwelling sin in the life of the believer, repeated repentance for a particular besetting sin is in every way normal. (And this is altogether different from saying that sin is not a big deal, making repentance a mere convenience.) Jesus himself predicts–hence, expects–multiple repeat offenses:
“If your brother or sister1 sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17.3-4)
Indeed, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive an offending brother or sister (he suggests up to seven times), Jesus’ famously responds, “I tell you not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Mt. 18.21-22)
Clearly Jesus expected a lot of forgiveness–and, thus a lot of sin and repentance–among his followers. (This may be anticlimactic, but what makes the community of faith so amazing isn’t primarily the absence of sin but the presence of forgiveness and reconciliation. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community like that? A: Only proud persons.)
Let’s run with the second metaphor above (i.e., the metaphor of repentance as a change in trajectory) to show why repeated repentance is totally worth it. In fact, it’s necessary.
Suppose you need to cross a river with a rather swift current. You have a small row boat, which will do the trick, but, alas, your rowing skills are pathetic. So you get in and shove off. You give an initial heave, applying the same pressure to both oars. But instead of going straight, you begin to be pushed off course by the current.
So you awkwardly correct with one of the oars to get your boat’s nose facing the other shore once again. Having corrected your trajectory, you give another heave. But again the current pushes you.
Because of your pathetic rowing skills, you have to keep making the same correction again and again, so you grow frustrated, embarrassed, angry at yourself–I’m a terrible rower; this is all just stupid. However–and this is a massive HOWEVER, you nevertheless reach the other shore. You may be downstream a bit from where you were. But you have more or less arrived at your intended destination.
If you had not repeatedly made the same correction in trajectory, it is absolutely certain that you would never have made it to your destination.
So repeated repentance is not merely worth it. It is crucial. What are the alternatives? Either never leaving the other side (i.e., not changing at all–choosing not to be a follower of Christ) or not repenting (i.e., being a hypocrite). Neither of these options gets a person to the other side. Neither of these persons is committed to the destination.
Two final thoughts:
First, in my own life I have never ceased to be amazed at how God can use repentance of the same sin in new ways in my life and in the lives of those whom I hurt. I have been constantly tempted to think, “Okay, I’ve learned all I can from repenting from that. There’s no longer anything good that can come from repenting of it again.” I’ve always been a 100% wrong on this. Rather, when we repeatedly repent to God and to others, we testify to the power of indwelling sin within all of us. That testifies to the necessity of the cross and to our need for one another. It also paves the way for others to repent as well. Hence, repentance is always an act of leadership.
Second, I hope the very simple story above communicates that repeated repentance is hardly artificial. Yes, repentance can be artificial, but simply because someone continues to fight and fail and repent, that in no way means they are not trying. Could they be trying harder? Do they need to grow in new ways and seek more pastoral care and accountability? Possibly, maybe probably. But that doesn’t mean their repentance isn’t real.
There is something in all of us that wants the victorious Christian life. And, indeed, Scripture summons us to set our sights on having a whole-hearted, unadulterated allegiance (e.g., Psalm 86.11; Matthew 5.48). More plausibly and probably more sincerely, there is something inside all of us that shuns mediocrity, fickleness, half-heartedness, etc. And, indeed, once again Scripture roundly condemns hypocrisy and lukewarmness (Matthew 6.2, 5, 16; 23.13ff; Rev. 3.16). The church is to be very different from the world. But that difference can often be different from what either our idealism or indignation might take us. That difference consists in repentance–in a new allegiance and in a new trajectory.
At any given moment–and especially when the church is unhealthy–this difference may not be immediately discernable, in the same way that two trajectories may (at first) not be two far apart. Consider the following true story that happened to a friend of mine:
A cardiologist in his early 60s was at home on a weekend reading in his living room. While reading he began to feel his body doing some really weird things–shortness of breath, discomfort in his chest, and a really strange feeling in one of his arms.
Being a cardiologist, he immediately recognized the symptoms and called to his wife in the next room, “Honey, quick, call 911, I’m having a heart attack!” She did, the ambulance came and rushed him to the hospital, where he received the life-saving care he needed.
In some ways, it’s an embarrassing story: a cardiologist who has a heart attack. He wasn’t in good health (there’s a saying that doctors can be the worst patients!); diet and exercise weren’t what they should have been.
As it turned out, about a week later a neighbor down the road, a man also in his early 60s, also had a heart attack. The symptoms weren’t too different, yet he had no idea what to do. He didn’t make it.
At one level there is great similarity between these two men: what difference does being a cardiologist make?! Both of these men had poor diets and weren’t exercising enough; both suffered severe heart attacks. But, of course, the obvious–and decisive–difference is that one lived and the other died.
One of them knew how to read his heart and to take radical action in response. The other didn’t.
True Christian faith is characterized by repentance. Repeated repentance. Yes, it’s so worth it.