A word we use around our church pretty often is repentance. It’s part of what makes our community of Jesus followers so dynamic and gospel centered. Focusing on repentance and constantly calling one another to it is critical to our own journey toward God. The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses rightly identifies that “all of life is repentance.” Again and again the Bible calls us to be a people of repentance and live in repentance to Christ so it’s right to focus on this as a community. What’s also important is that we focus on it rightly and approach it biblically. Recently God has been speaking to me about my own repentance and simply put, the issue is this: my own repentance often involves way too much of me, and not enough of God. Where did I come up with this idea that I am so central to my repentance? Quite frankly, it’s not the view I find in the Bible.
Psalm 139 sets the tone for what true repentance involves. The Psalm spends the majority of its time celebrating the sovereignty of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God and his ever-present-ness. But the way the Psalm is bookended is so critical for understanding repentance. The Psalmist starts out with the words:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! Psalm 139:1
Then it closes with an invitation along the same lines:
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24
Why is this so critical? Because we tend to be so introspective when it comes to things of the heart and Psalm 139 calls for something completely opposite of this. There’s nothing wrong with introspection. Contemplating our own thoughts and desires is important. But it’s too easy to let this be the driving force behind our repentance—and quite frankly behind our entire relationship with Christ. It’s way too easy to let our times of quiet reflection with God be driven by a constant looking inward. What do I think of this passage of Scripture? What do I want to pray about and ask for? What do I feel guilty about and need to repent of?
The problem with this model of seeking God and looking for needed repentance is that when the driving force in my life becomes what I think and what I feel and what I consider to be the priority then I have set myself up as the authority. I have made myself the one I answer to—even when my motivation is to draw near to God. It’s not what we have in mind, but it’s the reality of how we’re living when introspection dominates. Isn’t this often the tendency we have towards repentance? We rely on ourselves to “feel” guilty or convicted of something and then we figure the result is something we should repent of. We ask ourselves what we think of passages we read in the Bible and then assume this is the truth God wants us to take away from it. These practical ways of engaging Scripture and God and our own sinfulness runs into several snags when we put it into practice.
First, we simply don’t have the adequate perspective or knowledge to be so self-reliant with regard to our spiritual health. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that we simply don’t know or understand what God knows and understands. We don’t see as he sees. We aren’t God and would never claim to be, so why do we rely on our own meager perspective to guide us? Why do we rely on us to feel or see what we need to turn from in our lives? There is a definite knowledge gap between what God knows and what we know. That is reason enough not to put so much stock in what we think, feel, and desire.
Second, whether we like it or not, we can’t be trusted. We are broken sinners in need of grace. We know this. So it stands to reason that we can’t trust ourselves to play such a large role in evaluating the health of our souls. John speaks of the tendency of our own hearts to wrongly condemn us (1 John 3:19-24). And we see even disciples like Peter being fully convinced and convicted of a “truth” that isn’t true at all (Matthew 16:22-24). Because we are selfish sinners we can’t always trust what we think and what we “know” to be true. This makes sense in theory, but proves difficult in the day to day.
To be honest, these gaps are mostly incidental. The fact of the matter is that we are called and expected to look out toward God rather than looking in to ourselves. That’s the way the Bible reveals a heart of repentance. So the reasons I’ve identified are really secondary. The Psalmists back in 139 started out declaring the truth: God has searched him. God knows him. And so after reflecting on the greatness of God he seeks to be searched and to have his sin revealed to him. Essentially he is asking, “God, what should I repent of, what should I turn from? What do you find unacceptable in me?” He’s not deciding for himself, he’s looking to God to do the searching and the revealing.
Paul reiterates this same idea when in his letter to the Colossians he calls the people to live holy lives rather than sinful. He starts not by saying, “Take a long, hard look within and see how sinful you are.” Instead he says “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2) Don’t look in and see what you think, feel, and desire. Don’t look around you and see what others have set up as the value system. Look up. Look to God so that your minds can be set there rather than on yourself.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for introspection and self-searching. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be spending time considering our own thoughts and desires; we should. But I would imagine we could all do with cutting that time down and increasing the time we look toward Christ as we read, think, and pray. He will search our hearts by his Spirit who came in part to bring conviction. We should echo the psalmist more than we do, “Search me O God…”