Sometimes changing direction is hard. Believe it or not I am the Dooley least likely to stop and ask for help when it seems we've lost our way. I prefer to pretend to know where I’m going even when I don’t. Pretending never seems to work well in the long run. Heartache has an extreme way of pulling your vehicle to the side. Paused on the shoulder of the road, with dozens of other cars racing by, things begin to look different.
Nehemiah wasn’t doing anything wrong. He had a good job in a good place and was going about his life. When the broken news of the wall and the devastation of God's people showed up, it wrecked him. Following the abrupt stop, it's what Nehemiah did on the side of the road that aligned him with God’s bigger purposes. He could stay where he was or he could turn and face the direction God was leading him.
The Gospel is always about a 'yes.' It's always good news. If what you're facing isn't good news, then you can rest assured, it's not the Gospel. God is always working and because He desires to partner with us, He is always inviting us to join Him. Repentance is recognized in turning from what we are doing and joining in what He is doing. Repentance isn't about certain words, repentance is about certain actions. It’s not saying, “I’m sorry,” as much as it is doing, “I’m sorry.”
My girls sometimes struggle with this one. They tend to think, 'if I just say I’m sorry really quick, then mom will leave me alone and we can move on.' Wrong! I don’t care how many times you say sorry. I care about the actions following your words. Does the way you stand and the things you are say prove you have changed direction? Do your eyes see different things? Have the feelings of angst and anxiety shifted to peace and security?
John the Baptist was the first to bring it up. He recognized so many of those early believers with unchanged lives coming to the waters to be baptized. They weren’t there for inner transformation, they were there for outer incentives.
“People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham."
I love the challenge of verse 8, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” These Pharisees wanted the responsibility, but they didn't want the relationship. They wanted the incentives, but they didn't want to pay the cost. It simply doesn’t work that way. We cannot come to Jesus for what we are going to get out of Jesus. We cannot ask His opinion on our lives and then ignore Him when He starts speaking about something we don’t like. When we ask, He will respond. When He responds, He is inviting us to partner with Him and move. Together we will move out of the broken and into the bigger. Without our partnership, He will back off and allow us to build in circles for as long as it takes. Just ask the Israelites how it feels to waste unnecessary time resisting the directions of the one who knows the way.
False repentance is represented in false fruit. It’s quick change rather than deep rooted transformation. True repentance brings forth abundant fruit. Abundant fruit benefits not only you, but the people around you. Abundant fruit lasts, even when hard times come. It sustains, even through the worst storms and it continues to grow.
Here are a few things I’ve noticed about my heart when it is truly repentant
I don’t seek to defend or justify myself.
A truly repentant heart is just sorry. It no longer matters who is to blame or how we got to where we are. We are here and this isn’t where we want to be. Nehemiah didn’t defend himself. He didn’t try to blame the Israelites for where they were. He just sat down and wept. When he prayed, he repented as though he were present in Jerusalem with God’s people. Ultimately, God doesn’t need us to defend Him. He is the Judge and the Jury and He is totally capable of defending himself. No matter how we got where we are, we can be sorry we are not where He is.
I don’t seek my own gain
True repentance doesn’t need to gain anything in the transaction. When I am truly repentant I am past the point of needing to come out ahead or even needing to break even. I am more focused on grace, forgiveness and peace than on where the chips end in the long run. When I am truly repentant, I don't need to win the argument. I don't need to come out on top. I don't need people to understand my justification. I can be at the bottom.
And finally, I don’t need to receive honor
1 Samuel 15:30-31, “Saul replied, ‘I have sinned, but please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel.’”
True repentance no longer needs to receive honor in front of anyone because all honor goes to God. True transformation frees us from worrying about the way we are perceived by others and allows us to just be sorry. We cannot repent and follow Jesus in the dark. I did this all the time as a teenager. Crying out to God in my bed at night, “Jesus, I still want to go, just help me say no while I’m there.” I was sorry for what I had done, but not sorry enough to stop going the places causing me to do what I was doing. I wanted partial healing. “Will you heal me of my sin, but keep me with my friends.” And what’s worse was, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I, just like Nichodemus, wanted to change directions without anyone noticing. Could I have the gift of God, but keep it hidden in the package under my bed? In case you're there - the answer is 'no.'
“In repentance and rest you will find your salvation.” Isaiah 30:15
Our salvation, our sanctification, comes through our ability to rest in repentance. Can we live lives where we turn toward Him easily? Even when it means turning away from really good things. Spiritual maturity is measured in the amount of time between recognizing where God is and turning around to join Him in His work. It's measured by the time it takes us to turn from our 'no' and embrace His 'yes.' Do you trust Him enough to turn around?