Three years ago (this month) I repented to God for something dinky. I hadn’t stolen candy from a baby, oppressed a widow, or coveted a neighbor’s cow. I had simply failed to control my eating.
So I prayed, “God, I’m sorry about my poor self-control; I’ll stop eating between meals, and I’ll stop buying those tempting snacks.” I sensed God sigh, “Stop!”
I thought, Okay, I get it. That’s not the only area I lack self-control, so I prayed, “God, so-and-so is irritating the heck out of me, and my thoughts are like untamed beasts. I will begin being patient and start to domesticate my mind.” And God said, “Stop!”
A flood of other uncontrolled areas came to mind, and I willed myself to do better. I felt God shout, “STOP!” This time I stopped, and this time I shut up.
What was so bad?
What was wrong with my repentance? I had acknowledged a measure of weakness and resolved to act better in the future. Isn’t that textbook confession and repentance? Isn’t that how we teach turning from our sins? Yes. And no.
I felt God ask me to pause in my moment of confession—before my repentance, before my change. I had briefly mentioned some weaknesses but then quickly moved on to my solutions. And God asked me to pause in my weakness and shame.
Because my repentance (commitment to change) was simply self-serving. Sure, I snuck in a humble confession, but then I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and told God how I would do better. I presented myself to God on the basis of my future behavior.
And I felt better about myself. I had plans. I had resolve. And it was a New Year. I was going to make something of myself. God would do well to forgive me. He’d be proud he backed me. If this was a horse race, I was a good bet. (If I lost those ten pounds again.)
I was covering my shame with plans for self-improvement. And God asked me to pause in the moment of confession; just to stop right there. Uncovered.
The never-ending audition
My self-serving repentance was little more than trying to get God to like me. And my pathetic promises for better behavior began to sound stale. Even to me.
It was like the longest job interview ever; a never-ending audition for the coveted role; seventeen years of dating with no engagement ring in sight. I was performing on stage before God, and I was stumbling over my lines.
Just stop right there
Pausing in confession—resting before resolving—does something everyone hates. It abandons all pretense to power. It means standing unclothed in front of the God of the universe, and just standing there naked. No willpower. No resolutions. No great ideas. No fig leaves. Just an inner abandonment of all our posturing.
We really hate this. Something inside us clamors for an air of worthiness, a sense of merit, a value we can contribute; convincing God that we’re a good bet, a sure thing.
We like the old adage, “It is better to give than receive.” It usually is. Except here, in this moment, when we come before God. We need to come empty, neither auditioning for a role nor interviewing for a job.
Let’s abandon our virtues
John Gerstner was a 20th Century Christian thinker and a family friend. He wrote:
The way to God is wide open. There is nothing standing between the sinner and God. There is nothing to hinder. Nothing can hold us back, except our “good works.” Nothing can keep us from Christ but the delusion that we do not need Him alone—that we have any good works of our own that can satisfy God.
All we need is need.
But, alas, we cannot part with our “virtues.” Even though they are imaginary; they are real to us. So it is grace that becomes unreal. The real grace of God we spurn in order to hold on to the illusory virtues of our own (Theology for Everyone, slightly edited).
Our imaginary virtues are the fig leaves we use to cover our shame. They become more real to us than the grace of God. But they are illusions. In some way, counter to all moralistic teaching, we need to abandon our virtues and stand naked before God.
The power of the pause
I’ve been learning to pause in my confession; to stop after admitting my failure; to rest before repenting. Like these Psalms,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away by my groaning all day long. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:3 and 5)
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. (Psalm 130:3-5)
The audition is over. Let’s remove the makeup and costumes; let’s quit acting the hero; and let’s come before God as we are. We can promise virtue to win his favor, or we can be virtuous because we already have it.
True repentance begins when we let go of self in naked confession, when we admit that even in our confession and repentance we need God.