Honest Confession and Repentance

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).

Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.

Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.

Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).

Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.

Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.

As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped. 

The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.

Jesus, The Bread of Life

When a Jewish family prepares for Passover, they go through a very involved routine to rid their home of the yeast or leaven. Leaven (the Hebrew word is “chametz”) is considered a picture of sin and contamination, so their goal is to get rid of all of the chametz that is in their home during the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread – not just the packets of yeast that might have been purchased at the store. They search the house for anything that contains leaven, any bread, any cake or cookies. Many of the Jewish foods at the supermarket are marked as ready for Passover – they are without leaven.

This job of cleaning out the leaven is mostly Mom’s, but the Jewish dad participates also and, despite his disproportionate effort, he usually gets the credit. On the night before Passover Dad and a child go on the ceremonial search for the chametz. The child holds a candle while the father carries a feather, a wooden spoon and an old cloth napkin. Mom, who has done all the hard work, has left in a visible spot in the last room a few crumbs of leaven, so that their search would not be in vain. Dad then sweeps the few offensive crumbs into the spoon and wraps it – spoon and feather included – into the napkin. Then he declares, “Now I have rid my house of leaven.” The next morning he joins the other Jewish men at a ceremonial bonfire in which they burn their bundles of leaven. The thorough effort ought to be a picture of our effort to get rid of sin in our lives.

Actually both Testaments see leaven as a picture of sin. Jesus used its corrupting influence as a vivid picture of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). Similarly, Paul equated leaven with malice and wickedness while urging the Corinthians to “keep the festival (of Passover) with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).

The contaminating influence of sin is seen in the fact that when we begin to justify some known sin, it becomes easier then to justify another. There is a fascinating progression in I John 1:6-10 where John records that once we persist in lying to others, we then begin to believe the lie ourselves and finally we end up calling God a liar.

We’ve all seen this progression at work. A married man and a pretty co-worker strike up a friendship. It starts out innocently, but they become more and more attracted to each other. If anyone in the office questions them they get defensive (they lie to others). They justify lunch together all the while refusing to acknowledge the sinful feelings that are growing in them (they are lying to themselves). Finally they consummate the affair and defend their actions, calling God the liar for saying that something as beautiful as their love for each other is sinful.

This is the contaminating influence of sin. The sin began way back in their minds, and that is where the battle could have been won. Certainly the immoral actions are sin, but so is the unwillingness to check the temptation. But it is interesting that this goes even deeper. When sin is not checked, we not only justify the actions connected with that sin, but the sin expands. Now instead of dealing with a covetous or lustful temptation, we have to deal with immorality, with lying and with idolatry. If you are keeping track of the Ten Commandments, the one sin has grown to four. The leaven is at work.

We cannot live sinless lives, as Jesus did, because we are steeped in sin from birth. But we can dispose of known sin, and the picture of the Jewish family going through the house prior to Passover is intended to
remind us of this. We are to be as diligent in searching our hearts for sin as the family is in searching their home for the leaven. David wrote, “Search me, O God and know my heart; try me and see if there be any hurtful way in me.” (Ps. 139: 23-24). The ancient rabbis have seen a relationship between this practice and Zeph. 1:12 where the Lord declares, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’”

A calloused attitude toward sin was a serious offense in the ancient Jewish society. The failure to rid their homes of leaven led to exclusion from the community (Ex. 12:15, 19). Excommunication in ancient Israel was more severe than we perceive it to be in our society. To be cut off from the community meant that a man couldn’t trade or enjoy the protection of that community. He would be vulnerable to the attacks of enemies and wild animals. It was a real punishment. Today people perceive that there is no real consequence to sin beyond some personal grief. But this doesn’t mean that in God’s sight sin is any less severe.

The Church is to be a place where righteousness is promoted. Yes, we are to be a loving and caring community, but that doesn’t mean that we should be soft on sin.

At the same time, we should be conscious that every one of us has some skeleton in our closet. There are no perfect people; all of us are in some ways hypocrites. But the issue of personal holiness is not an issue of perfection. Mostly it is an issue of honesty. We are to be honest about our sin, especially as we speak to God. We are to align our lives with the Scripture, acknowledging that we aren’t perfect in this and confessing our failures. When we do this honestly, without pretense, we will find ourselves growing in holiness.
 The Unleavened Bread is a type of Christ, Jesus Himself having said, “I am the Bread of Life.”

The baker uses a fork to pierce the bread so that air bubbles don’t form. When the baked matzo is held up to the light you can see small holes in the cracker. It is pierced, just as was Jesus. The Bible says “He was pierced through for our transgressions” (Is. 53:5). Furthermore, when the bread bakes, the places between the holes get brown, producing a striped look. A phrase in that same verse is often translated, “By His stripes we are healed.” Jesus took that unleavened bread at the Passover meal in the Upper Room the night before He died and He broke it before them with the words, “This is My body” (Luke 21:19).

The contrast between leavened and unleavened bread is intended to point out the serious nature of sin. But often people today are not willing to assume the cost of their sin, so they put on a façade that suggests to people around them that they have repented, when they really haven’t. Real repentance always costs more than a feigned penitence.

It is also costly for the Jewish family to rid its home of leaven. It is amazing to observe all the foods containing leaven that we have in our homes that would have to be replaced after the celebration. The financial cost would be quite high, had not the rabbis come up with a remarkable solution.
 The Jewish mother still gathers up all the leaven in the home, but instead of putting it in the trash, she sells it to her Gentile neighbor for a dollar. Sometimes she puts it in a spare room/closet in her home and sells the whole room to her Gentile neighbor. But the point is that it is no longer her possession and she can honestly say that there is no leaven in her house. She is ready for Passover. After the Feast she then buys it back from her neighbor – hopefully for the same dollar – and everyone is satisfied.

Everyone, that is, except God. It is not enough for us to say that we are giving up sin when all the while we have intentionally just put it aside for a period of time. The picture of the Unleavened Bread at Passover is a picture of our being diligent to rid ourselves of sin, of trusting Jesus, the Living Bread, to cleanse our hearts and purify our minds. Let us do so with sincerity and truth.

The Rain Dance

I wrote this essay is about twenty years old, but I read something recently that reminded me of it.

THE RAIN DANCE

It’s raining outside as I write this. A nice, gentle rain. We have been dry, but in other parts of the country “drought” is the more appropriate word. Water rationing has become necessary there. Restaurants will serve water only on request, lawns and cars will have to wait.

The Native American rain dance didn’t help this time either, although it seemed the perfectly logical solution, given the current state of humanism. Our society has decided that all religions are really one religion and to call on any god is tantamount to calling on the only God. If the truth were known, though, the humanistic powers-that-be really don’t believe that any god or the only God exists, so it is a nice little superstition to pass the time while we wait for Mother Nature to do her self-correction and equalize the rainfall according to the statistical averages.

But how quickly we forget! It is said that if we ignore our history we are doomed to repeat its failures. In their fine book, The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel recall the events of the summer of 1623 when a severe drought threatened to destroy the corn crop and, with it, the Pilgrim’s colony. It continued for 12 weeks, a longer period of dryness than even the oldest Indian could ever recall. The Indian rain dances and incantations had no effect, but the Pilgrims set aside a day for fasting, self-examination and prayer to call upon God’s mercy and provision. Marshall and Manuel quote from the journal of Edward Winslow:
“But, O the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask! For though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as ever it was, yet (our exercise continuing some eight to nine hours) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides. On the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it is hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived, such was the bounty of our God!”

Winslow went on to comment on the effects of this upon the Indians of this region:
“All of them admired the goodness of our God towards us, that wrought so great a change in so short a time, showing the difference between their conjuration and our invocation on the name of God for rain, theirs being mixed with such storms and tempests, as sometimes, instead of doing them good, it layeth the corn flat on the ground…but ours in so gentle and seasonable a manner, as they never observed the like.”

The devout confession of the Pilgrims is what God expected of ancient Israel when Amos the prophet declared that God “withheld the rain from (them)…then (He) would send rain on one city and on another city (He) would not send rain. One part would be rained on while the part not rained on would dry up” (4:7).

But instead of devout confession, we in America today turn to pagan gods to relieve our weather-related anxieties. Sometimes it is the Native American rain dance; sometimes it is the god of meteorology and weather forecasting with its cloud seeding technology. We have yet to learn what Job learned centuries ago when God asked him the rhetorical question, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water may cover you?” (38:34).

But whichever we turn to, as we do, we turn our backs upon the God who created us and redeemed us in His own Son. The Bible declares that His patience will not last forever.
Now, it should be noted that it is not wrong to study meteorological science, or any other science, for that matter. What is wrong is that we tend in our society to attribute to it the status of deity by denying that any outside force can suspend its laws. This tendency is a subtle declaration on our part that some day we humans will figure out how to manipulate the laws, create, and be completely independent of “God.” But for all the insights science has given us in the realm of meteorology, it has yet to create a cloud on such a scale that it can water our crops. It has yet to stop a thunderstorm, or even predict accurately where a tornado will travel. All it can do is warn us to get out of its way, yet often we lift our voices to praise it rather than turning to the God of heaven who rides “upon the wings of the wind” and “twists the oaks” (see Psalms 18, 29) or to His Son Whom the winds and waves obey.

Let us be very clear that the turning to pagan gods for rain dances is not merely a quaint and harmless superstition. It is our declaration that we are unwilling to humble ourselves before the God who created us and will ultimately judge us. The fact that the axe has not yet fallen must not lull us into believing that it never will or that God “tolerates” our sin. He is merciful and patient toward us, giving us every opportunity to repent and to be restored. But just like a good parent, He will allow rebellion to continue only until it is clear that we will not repent on our own.

The imminent danger of famine and hardship led the Pilgrims of 1623 to confess and repent of their sins. This was their only hope in Christ. Our deepest problem here around the turn of the millennium is that we don’t perceive that our danger is imminent. May God awaken us from our slumber.

Too High of a Price

“You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples” (Psalm 44:12-14, ESV).

Jim Elliot was martyred for Christ on January 8, 1956 as he and four other missionaries in Ecuador were attempting to make contact with a warlike, stone-age tribe of Indians known as the Aucas. The story of their martyrdom is told in a book written by Elliot’s wife, Elizabeth (Betty), called Through Gates of Splendor. It is a classic that should be read by every earnest believer in Christ.

Betty Elliot also wrote about her husband’s inner spiritual life, gleaned largely through Jim’s journals. That book is called Shadow of the Almighty and is also a worthy read. At some point while he was a student at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

At the time, this martyrdom made the national news here in the United States. The reporters assigned to this story (and even some church leaders) considered the deaths of the five missionaries to be a tragic waste of life. Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that the wives and loved ones went through periods of grief, wondering about the high cost of reaching a tribe of a few hundred obscure Indians hidden in the jungles of Ecuador. It may surprise many to realize that the Psalmist felt a similar emotion in Psalm 44.

Those who question the martyrdom of these five men — including the church leaders — display a lack of understanding of the worth of the human soul. If men, made in the image of God, were worth redeeming at the cost of God’s own Son, what sacrifice is too much for even the most obscure people group on earth? Their grief, notwithstanding, the loved ones of these men understood this. But do we?

I have known many men who have left ministry because the cost was just too great. The headaches and heartaches of ministry just aren’t worth the relatively low pay, the constant stress, and the scorn of family and friends. Conflicts within the congregation take their toll on ministers’ marriages and children. It would be different if the Lord would demonstrate radically transformed lives as a result of our work, but that is not often the case — here or overseas. We often labor in obscurity, not seeing many results. For many who have left ministry, God has demanded too high of a price of them. In the words of the Psalmist, “[He] has sold [His] people for a trifle…”

Many people who consider themselves to be Christians have left the Church because the cost of being among God’s people (those to whom Jesus is committed) is too great. Humility and contrition are too high of a price to pay. The souls of pagan neighbors or coworkers or family members are just not worth the pain of not getting our way in a church decision. Certainly there are times when a principled stand must be taken in today’s Church, but are we really willing to stand before Jesus for something as trivial as the color of the carpet or which version of the Bible we prefer to read? We don’t want to be “a laughingstock among the peoples.”

Does God really require sacrifice from me? Does He really expect me to humble myself before someone with whom I have had a conflict so that — MAYBE — men might know Him? The wives of the five martyrs would say, “Yes.”

Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

Striking the Rock

8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. …11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ” Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12, NASB, emphasis added)

It is a great temptation for believers to obey halfway — to give an appearance of obedience when, in fact, we are disobeying. As with Moses, there are always consequences to our disobedience.

The holiness of God demands our complete attention. Isaiah tells us that the person God esteems is the one who is “humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at [His] Word” (Is. 66:2, NASB). It’s not enough to just hear God speak, we must pay attention to the details.

When I was probably 12 or 13, my mom sent me to the grocery store on my bicycle for some hamburger buns. I had only heard “buns” so brought back hot dog buns. Our burgers that evening had to be shaped long and thin to fit the bread!

Like most men I sometimes have trouble listening to the details of my wife’s instructions when something is needed from a store. Happily cell phones can now keep me out of trouble as I can call for clarification.

The busy world in which we live lures us into the same inattention to detail with God’s Word as I experienced as a young teen and still experience as a husband, yet — if He is really holy — there is no excuse for my failure to give Him my full attention. What distraction could possibly be as important as the Word of the eternal God? That’s why Isaiah trembled when God spoke (66:2).

But Moses’ inattention, however, wasn’t due to the busyness of his world — it was due to his anger. He was frustrated that the people he was leading were constantly complaining. Nothing was ever right with these people, and he had had enough. Sometimes our failure to obey completely is due to our own self-righteousness and sin, and this is far more serious than a mere distraction. Mis-shaped hamburgers are no big deal, but Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because of it.

Do you “tremble at [God’s] Word”? When He calls you to tithe, do you interpret this as merely “give’” and give a token amount? When He calls upon you to “renew your mind” (Rom. 12:2), do you listen to Christian music rather than turning it all off so you can read the Word? Are daily devotions a once-a-week event? “The LORD God of Israel declares…‘those who honor Me I will honor’” (1 Samuel 2:30, NASB).

The Pursuit of Truth

O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent (Jeremiah 5:3, ESV).

These ancient words are profoundly contemporary.

We live in a world where expediency is more desired than truth. Americans (especially) have always had a pragmatic bent to them. We like to use phrases like “like a well-oiled machine,” “We’re clicking on all cylinders,” and “now we’re cooking with gas” to describe the aspects of our lives that are going well and progressing. When things aren’t going so well, we assume that the machinery is somehow wrong.

This mindset is wonderful for overcoming obstacles that are physical in nature — we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and figure out where the machinery is deficient. But not all problems are physical in nature; sometimes things don’t go well because we have failed to pursue the truth that the Lord is trying to communicate to us. He is — at least according to Christian orthodoxy — continually revealing His will to men.

Such was the case in Jeremiah’s day. God brought judgment because the people resorted to idolatry. They didn’t listen to His Word or His prophets or the Laws that their ancestors adopted. Instead, they chose to worship false gods and were surprised when they were “struck down” and “consumed.” They didn’t need better mechanics — they needed to repent.

Repentance is not preached much from America’s pulpits any more — to our detriment. Repentance is how we get right with the God that created us and how we stay in a right relationship. We usually define repentance as an act of turning from sin to Christ, and this is a proper definition. It implies, though, that this is a one time action. Contrition is a related word, but implies that the repentance is a “state,” an ongoing expression of repentance.

The price of repentance/contrition is often too high for us as Americans. Like the proverbial “average” student in school we assess what is the minimum amount of work to get by and we do that. For many of us it’s enough that we put on a show of repentance even if we have not really done so in the integrity of our hearts. Repentance involves real sorrow for sin; it involves the true admission guilt; it involves a lifestyle change that begins in our thoughts and carries through to our actions. It doesn’t mean perfection; but it does mean honesty. When David repented, he stated, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being (Psalm 51:6, ESV).

The people of our day are much like the people to whom Jeremiah was preaching in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of his prophecy. They are harder than rocks; they refuse to repent (5:3) because they have ignored the truth for expedience.