How to & How Not to Repent: Best and Worst Practices

True repentance is not just sorrow over particular idols or behavioral failures but brokenness over our condition as a sinful person

The recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. The difficulty is in discerning disingenuous repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught, or a tactic to gain relational leverage.

 

HOW TO REPENT

There is no formula for repentance. The six points below are merely meant to help you experience the full redemptive impact of repentance. In this sense, repentance and God’s forgiveness can be like a smart phone. They have many features that we may not know are present or how to utilize. When we buy the phone, we get them all; but we do not get the full benefit of them until we realize they’re there and how to use them.

After each point, we will offer an area of self-assessment. These questions are meant to help you determine whether you are placing yourself in a position to receive the benefits God intends to provide through each aspect of repentance.

1. A desire to live for God and submit to His Lordship.

Repentance does not begin with remorse. If that were the case, then we would be saying the cure for guilt begins with feeling worse.

Repentance begins with a genuine desire to submit to God’s Lordship out of trust for His character. Repentance begins with the belief that what God wants for us is actually what is best. We trust God to lead our lives more than ourselves.

When we see God’s ways as best, we are sorry we strayed from them, but this remorse is not “icky” like shame; instead it is like the sense of reunion with a trusted friend after you realize you were wrongly upset with them and they graciously embrace the friendship again.

  • Self-Assessment: Are you surrendering to the Lordship of Christ because you trust his love for you or are you primarily seeking relief from unpleasant emotions and destructive habits?

2. An understanding of how our sin sought to replace God.

It is not just actions or distorted motives for which we repent. We repent for having replaced God with ourselves. 

The idols that fuel our sin want to control all of our lives; to interpret all the events and people in our lives. Repentance acknowledges this false worship as an affront to God and wants him to have his rightful place in our lives; allowing God to again rightly interpret the events and people in our lives.

  • Self-Assessment: Are you able to see the “against God” nature of your sin?

3. Brokenness over the nature of our sin.

A healthy life begins with recognizing our fallen human condition. Ultimately we sin because we are sinners. The myriad of factors that led to our sin are not the root cause. The root is that our nature has been distorted by the Fall (1 Cor. 15:21-22).

True repentance is not just sorrow over particular idols or behavioral failures but brokenness over our condition as a sinful person. When we acknowledge our depravity, we gain an accurate self-assessment that motivates us to perpetually rely on God. Realizing this is the perpetual need of every person allows for a non-shame-based honesty in which a real relationship with God can thrive.

Repentance is what allows you not to have to be either fake or fatalistic about your short-comings and perpetual struggles. Repentance allows you to be honest and have hope at the same time.

  • Self-Assessment: Do you resist seeing yourself and allowing yourself to be known as someone who is in perpetual need of God’s sustaining grace?

4. Expression to God.

After sin, our pride or fear causes us to hide from God rather than talk to God (Gen. 3:8). Too often we think that a directionless sense of regret for sin is the same thing as repenting to God.

You will not feel restored to God as long as you are avoiding God because of your sin. It does no good to address your repentance “to whom it may concern.” Any ambiguously addressed repentance is little more than talking to yourself differently. Talk to God when you repent so that you can know His response to your repentance.

  • Self-Assessment: Have you talked to God in your repentance? If not, might it be that your repentance seems ineffective because the “no one” you spoke to can have no power to forgive or comfort?

5. Faith in God’s willingness to forgive.

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