My 4-year-old is already learning the lesson that, sadly, despite what his preschool might say, he will not be able to be anything he wants to be when he grows up. For instance, I'm fairly certain that a career as a professional poker player is off the list of possibilities. He's already developed a pretty big tell. If my son is not quite telling the truth he always looks away. And by “look away” I mean his whole head will turn and look at every direction except for his mother or me. His words might say, “Yes, Daddy, I'm sorry for what I did.” But his erratic head movements say, “I don't really mean what I’m saying right now. But you can't tell because of how I'm cleverly hiding my face from you.”
Sin, however, cannot be dealt with in any other way but head on, without any self-justifying excuses. We need to address it directly, with full honesty and little reservation, if we are to truly kill it.
Depending on the sin, some of the necessary steps of repentance will require visible, tangible expression. Of course, we can’t literally look God in the eyes to show that we are being authentic in our repentance. However I am beginning to believe that if, for example, someone seems largely perfunctory and academic when confessing a sin like, say, watching pornography, then he is probably not yet ready for repentance.
So what does an authentic, visible expression of repentance mean practically? I hesitate at this point to elaborate because my words can easily be taken in a wrong, legalistic way. Yet it still seems worth saying that if we are to truly overturn sinful habits in our lives we must be willing to engage in at least some kind of “sackcloth and ashes” type of repentance.
Contrast for instance David's response when confronted with his sin by Nathan versus Saul's response when confronted with his sin by Samuel. David was bluntly honest, emotional, and submissive. He was literally and metaphorically on his knees almost immediately, with no excuse-making or bargaining. Saul on the other hand said he was sorry and at the same time tried to downplay his disobedience of God’s direct command. He was more eager to move on and get back to ministry with Samuel than to do the hard work of repentance (“Now therefore [Samuel], please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 1 Samuel 15:25).
Again, this article can easily be taken in a misleading way. It's dangerous for anyone to begin saying he doen’t think someone else has truly repented because he hasn't cried enough or said the exact right words. Traveling down that road will lead to the kind of phony dramatics you might see on the latest reality show.
Nevertheless I still think we must explore what true confession and repentance might actually look and sound like. So, for example, I can tell that someone is on the right track when he stops spending most of their time trying to get me to understand why and how he's sinned. There are only so many variations of “I was tired” or “I wasn’t thinking” or “(Fill in the name) is why I messed up.” This kind of confession and repentance looks and sounds like “I’m trying to self-justify through blamecasting and empathic appeal.” If you hear anything along those lines you can know for sure the person is not yet pointed in the right direction.
In a recent meeting, however, I saw someone headed in the right direction. He showed real disgust over his sin. Such repentant believers describe their sin in worse terms than even you might use. They offer no excuses for sin. They don’t mention or blame anyone else in relation to their sin. They freely admit that they are in a severely broken relationship with God and are now eager, passionate—even desperate—to get right with him.
Getting to that point requires regular and humble examination to see the extent of our sin. For if we are to help each other really untangle especially entangling sin from our lives, we will have to go deep and far.
Such examination will always be hard work. We will need to help one another see that sin is not just a “struggle” or a bad habit; instead, in our conversations and prayers, we must refer to sin as the Bible does—rebellion against the Lord God. We must not just be sorry about our sin but be completely shattered by our sin. Your spirit must be broken before you can get a new spirit (Ps. 51:10,17). Fortunately, the new spirit God creates in us is so clean and good and right, we will wonder why we were so stubbornly resistant to fully confessing and repenting of our sin in the first place.