Have you ever apologized for something and not meant it? I’m a dad with three kids, ages five, three, and two. It’s not uncommon for my kids to get upset with one another in my house (I’m sure you understand if you have kids or have had kids). When fits are thrown and complaints raised, we tell our kids to apologize to the offended party, hoping to calm the troubled waters. It’s not unusual for the kids to offer an apology that is not, let’s say, genuine. Often, apologies are given through gritted teeth flowing from frustrated hearts. Is that okay? Do you think those apologies are sincere?
If someone were to tell you “I’m sorry” with clenched fists, a frowned face, and an exasperated tone, would you believe them? Probably not. But sometimes, kids apologize with pouty eyes, quivering lips, and a sheepish manner, not because they are filled with the anguish of offending the parent or sibling, but to get out of trouble. They’re not sorry; they simply offer expressions of regret out of self-preservation.
When dealing with your children, it’s pretty easy to discern whether their sorrow is genuine. Now, we may become irritated over their insincerity and attempts of emotional manipulation. But I wonder if we are guilty of the same when it relates to God and repenting of our sin. Did you know that it’s not uncommon for people to “repent” and not mean it? Oh, it’s possible. Why would God command the people to be genuine in their repentance if it weren’t?
In the book of Joel, we read, “rend your hearts and not your garments (2:13).” Interesting. To rend one’s garments was to show grief and mourning visibly. The act was to be an outward, formal display of an inward reality. Through the prophet Joel, God is not denouncing the practice of rending garments; He’s simply denouncing hypocrisy. What good is the rending of garments when one’s heart remains unbroken?
This act of false repentance is none other than legalism. Legalism can display itself in various forms, but one form is an adherence to the letter of the law to the exclusion of the spirit of the law, which means the person obeys outwardly. At the same time, the heart is void of any desire to honor God and His intent on giving the law. The rich, young ruler demonstrated this mentality. The rich, young ruler’s heart was void of love for God and full of love for self. Are you guilty of rending your garments, but not your heart?
In his book The Doctrine of Repentance, the puritan Thomas Watson defined repentance as “a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” He stated that repentance is a spiritual medicine of six unique ingredients: the sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, and turning from sin. Watson states, “a woman may as well expect to have a child without pangs as one can have repentance without sorrow.” The sorrow that God calls for is a breaking of the heart, as we see in Joel 2:13. Godly sorrow is not superficial.
In the book of 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says, “for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (7:10). Godly sorrow. That’s what we should desire. But what is godly sorrow?
Thomas Watson says that godly sorrow is sorrow for the offense rather than punishment. My kids may say they’re sorry, not because they agonize over offending me, but because they don’t want to lose their toy. Second, godly sorrow is sorrow not only for the offense but the desire to transgress. According to Watson, “he [the true mourner] grieves the root of bitterness even though it never blossoms into act.” Godly grief is tremendous grief. Again, Watson is helpful. He states, “we are to find as much bitterness in weeping for sin as ever we found sweetness in committing it.”
As convicting as these words are, I have some encouraging words for you. If you reread Joel 2:13, you will see that our repentance and return to the Lord are rooted in the character of God. We read, following the command to repent and return, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster (v.13).” Amazing. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. He will not despise a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). Christian, we serve a gracious and merciful God. Rejoice! Rejoice in His goodness, but also in the reality that He calls us to repent. He calls for us to return instead of pouring out wrath the moment we commit an offense. Grace. Thank you, God, for grace.
Does godly grief characterize your repentance before the Holy God? Here’s the reality: you may rend your garments and not your heart, and others may never know, but God does. He knows the truth of your heart. Therefore, I encourage you today that if you are guilty of superficial repentance, repent of your “repentance” and walk in integrity before the Almighty.
God, grant us to have such love, reverence, and gratitude for you that our hearts break when we sin against you. Friend, don’t be guilty of rending your garments while your hearts are unbroken. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:3)
Soli Deo Gloria,
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