Monday, June 1, 2015

Repent Without Regret

Ever think about how often perfectionism gets people into trouble? It’s the impossible standard you put on yourself and others that makes you at best a schoolmarm or at worst a tyrant. Neither of which is easy to live with. And the perfectionist is never satisfied. And that lack of satisfaction haunts our lives.

Do you know what I think? Perfectionists deep down have a desire to please. Ourselves, others and even God. So we put an unhealthy standard on ourselves and then get busy flogging ourselves every time we don’t live up to those standards. Am I saying it is wrong to have standards of excellence and to work hard? I am not! The Bible speaks plainly about the importance of excellence in our work. Hard work brings some amazing results, and we are often proud of those results.

But how do we actually deal with God’s standards and ours? God’s standards are that we are to be holy. Just the way He is. The funny thing about God is at the same time He sets this very high bar knowing it will be so good for us if we live up to it. He knows if we try to be loving, just, kind, honest and act in integrity the way He is it will profoundly change our lives. But….do you know what the rub is? We can’t live up to His standards and He knows it. Oh great. Those of you who have lived under an impossibly high standard of parents or bosses are already cringing.

But… God builds in an amazing and creative solution to His high, really impossible standards. He asks us to be holy and not sin but lets us know He has a Son who can stand in for us when it’s our turn to be punished for our sin and wrongdoing. Jesus Christ steps in FOR us and pays for our mistakes and sins with His own life. We’re rescued from this mess because Jesus did everything perfectly that we couldn’t. And we’ve chosen to receive the gift He gives us by believing that it is true. It’s an act of faith. We were shown amazing mercy by God. And the best part is He offers this gift to everybody on the planet. We have the choice to turn away from the way we have been living our lives and turn to Him to receive this amazing gift.

God does two big things when we turn the rudder of our lives toward Him. He forgives us of our sin. That is showing us mercy. But then He does something more. He gives us the grace to live our lives as His sons and daughters. With our heads held high and in freedom. We are similar to death row prisoners deserving punishment but the great news is Jesus takes our place on death row. And then He helps us walk out of the prison we’ve made of our lives in a really different way. He lets us walk out as sons and daughters.

Do you know what sons and daughters of God get to do? We get to spend time with Him and talk to Him. This ability we have to connect with God is His gift of love to us. Part of His love allows us to talk with God; we can talk with Him out loud or in our hearts when we are alone. The exciting reality for us is He hears each word, even our unspoken thoughts. Once we belong to His family we are never alone again.

When I begin to worry or am distressed I start talking out loud (if I am alone!) to God as if He is right in the room with me. I try to divert my worry immediately into prayer. Even if I am not alone I try to do that same thing, taking my worry into prayer, within my own mind. I start by rehearsing the circumstances, describing them to the Lord and then continuing on with prayer about the circumstances I’m concerned about. Even with the feelings of fear or upset still in my chest or stomach I try to start right away into conversation with the Lord. This has taken me some time to make this a habit but it has been a wonderful one to develop.

For me, even harder than worries I find myself struggling with, are the feelings I get when I have made a mistake. Especially if it seems like a big mistake! When I make a mistake I feel an immense amount of guilt. I feel like a failure. When I feel like I have let my daughters down or my wife down I also am upset because I feel like I have let God down. My heart sinks within me. Sometimes I actually lose physical strength. As soon as I am able I rush to my wife or my daughter and apologize and they are always willing to forgive me.

One thing I have been working on is to have compassion for myself when I do make a mistake. I have learned I have a lot of compassion for other people and often very little for myself. Sometimes I say things to myself I would never let someone say about my wife or daughters. I can be very harsh with myself. Maybe you find yourself doing the same thing. Somehow thinking it will help. What I find it does for me is tend to slow me down from the things God has given me to do in this life. Lacking compassion for myself and beating myself up has never produced much other than anxiety! So, going to ones I love and telling them what has happened, asking forgiveness and MOVING ON to what is next in my life has taken discipline. I have to remind myself to have compassion and kindness toward me like I would toward anyone else. And doing that has made my life more productive and I think has allowed me to have even more compassion for others who are struggling when I’m compassionate with myself.

So while going directly to the person I’ve hurt has worked with people in my life for years it was always harder for me to do this in my relationship with God when I thought I had failed Him. I always assumed He was disappointed in me. I always felt a distance in my relationship with Him. Instead of running to the Lord immediately I would wrestle with my feelings until I was able to finally tell Him I was sorry. Even then I still felt a distance from Him, for a while at least. Then I would resolve not to make any mistakes again especially if it is a mistake that I have made more than once. Do you hear the perfectionism in that? I believed I had to do most of the work to get things right between me and God. Forgetting that He had a God sized heart and was tremendously open to forgiving me! Always! But the bottom line is mistake making is a very painful business for many of us and we think if we could just avoid mistakes altogether we would be alright. (Oh the pain of perfectionism! Who could imagine not making any more mistakes? Um…maybe a perfectionist?!)

Over the years it has become less agonizing for me as I have learned in my heart (not just intellectually assenting to this truth) that God made me right with Him when I accepted the gift that Jesus gave me when He died. Made me right forever! Perhaps you have a person in your life that you love so much that there really is nothing they could do that you wouldn’t forgive them for. That you are entirely predisposed to believe the best about them! Well that is the way God sees us who are His children. There is an old–fashioned Bible word called “justified” that describes our relationship with God right after we have received the gift of eternal life. We are “justified” which means God’s demands for justice have been accomplished.

We who deserved to die to pay for our own sins now have Jesus taking that punishment for us. He takes our penalty and pays it. In full! Do you remember Christ’s last words on the cross right before He died? He said “it is finished.” In the original language that was actually financial terminology that meant “paid in full.” Christ paid all that needed to be paid for our wrongs. He completed the transaction! And that action on His part makes us right before God. Completely! It is God who has already done the justifying by having Christ die on the cross to pay for our sin and wrong. Years ago I taught myself a simple definition of ‘justified’. For me it simply means ‘just as if I’d never sinned.’ If we continue our analogy to death row it’s not just that we’re pardoned by God. No. It’s as if we had never been charged with the crime! Isn’t that amazing?

So, did this new concept immediately take effect? That I would understand it’s as if I never did anything wrong? Well, no! Another important step I needed to make in my relationship to God was to learn not to keep saying I am sorry to God all the time! Reading that may sound odd at first. What’s wrong with saying you are sorry for wrongdoing? We have to do this with our friends and family or we will not have very good relationships, right? But with God there was a subtle way my apologizing was not building relationship with Him.

I have come to the realization that if the main way I am relating to God when I make a mistake is always saying I’m sorry, and repeating that same cycle, then I am missing a big part of what God is wanting to do in my life! Of course we certainly do not want to do things wrong intentionally. I am not suggesting that we are free to do things we know are wrong on purpose as if God’s grace and mercy towards us were cheap. I would never want to do intentional wrongs repeatedly. But sometimes we get caught in an endless cycle of doing things we don’t want to do, apologizing, and then doing them again. It doesn’t seem very much like the kind of life we expect to live if we are daughters and sons of the King. King Jesus. We are human, of course. But at some point, God helped me to see how He wanted me off the sin/sorry/sin/sorry cycle. And honestly I was very glad to get off the treadmill!

God wants us to walk in the freedom of knowing Him and knowing we are completely free to be ourselves. Even with our flaws and tendencies to stay in the rut of doing things wrong. This sounds like a wonderful goal but how do we go about accomplishing this?! I am suggesting that we completely change the way we try to change. Whoa! What? I want to explore the things that have us on that treadmill we can’t seem to get off of. It will also help us find greater freedom to do the things we want to be doing. Here’s how.

Repentance is a Bible concept that is a little different than just feeling sorry for what we have done. Repentance is a very honest looking at our lives, our mistakes and our sin, agreeing with God that we are wrong in doing the sin, and then doing a complete turnabout from the direction we were heading. Repentance is doing a 180 degree turn from the direction we were going. It is a big concept.

C.S. Lewis once said that repentance is like the pilot of an airplane who happens to be flying directly into a thunderstorm deciding to do a 180 degree turn to avoid the storm. No sane pilot thinks it makes sense to fly into a thunderstorm. It doesn’t take much effort to get the pilot to agree with that. When you start hanging out with a new friend you learn pretty quickly what they are passionate about. You learn what they love and hate. What they see as valuable and what they see as destructive. Things with God are no different.

As we spend time with God we learn what He thinks are wrong thoughts and behaviors but we also learn about all the wonderful things God has given to us. And the God who made us has given us a whole lot to allow us to experience happiness and even joy that are perfectly right! This process requires a reorientation of our thinking and really our being. If we are not doing wrong then we don’t have to repent of course. But what do we do when we find ourselves doing the same things we know are wrong? Or sinful? Or unkind? Or just not the people we want to be? If repentance is a good biblical concept and something God asks of us, then why do we get caught in the cycle of feeling so crummy? I think a verse in the Bible speaks to a subtle but powerful truth that can help us.

The Bible says, "...the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:10). Okay, so this is suggesting we can actually repent but do it without regret? And that repentance isn’t what’s getting us in trouble at all but the regret? This verse brings up that we are going to have sorrow in this life. But the kind of sorrow we get from what the world has to offer gives us a lot of sorrow. And that the sorrow we get from knowing God makes us actually want to turn away from the wrong we’ve done and turn the rudder of our ship toward God. And that in that turning we won’t have regret. That sounds wonderful! But what if I am the king or queen of worldly regret? And can find 42 things to regret about what I have done since this morning?

One of the first steps is that we are going to have to re-train our hearts about how to do our repenting. This verse says “godly sorrow produces repentance WITHOUT REGRET.” We still get to agree with God that we’ve done wrong in our lives but coming to that place won’t have to be accompanied by regret. Can you spell relief?

This whole point/counterpoint between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow is worth really thinking about. We should feel sorrow because of sin, but God's will is that when we do the repenting/turning away that’s required that we’ll be able to do it "without regret." Biblical repentance doesn’t mean we just try to improve ourselves by making ourselves feel "bad" because of what we have done wrong. It means that agreeing with God that something we have done is wrong and turning with our whole hearts away from it without regret. If we have repented then we are forgiven and we don’t need to go over it again and again. We did it…then we repent…and we let it go. Why? Because if God has forgiven us He won’t bring it up again nor even remember it. So why do we want to go on day after day beating ourselves up. Why not put that to rest and believe God that we are forgiven?

Making ourselves feel bad about what we have done wrong may punish us into a temporary appearance of outward conformity, but it does nothing to help change our behavior long term. The Bible says, "...the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and harsh treatment of the body self-abasement...are of no value in restraining sensual fleshly indulgence." (Col. 2:23). Repentance by making ourselves feel a bunch of regret is harsh treatment of the body and has "no value in restraining sensual indulgence."

Drowning ourselves in condemnation may feel religious, but it is not God's will for us to grow that way. Making ourselves feel bad for what we do wrong is "self-made religion" because the pain we feel seems to justify our wrong doing or “fix” it somehow. Do we really think that God wants us to beat ourselves up over and over again for what we did and for what we repented for already? Should we continue to think about it again and again? Does that make us into the pure, wholesome, mature people of God He wants us to be? I honestly believe wallowing in sorrow over our mistakes keeps us locked in the identity we have of “wrongdoer.” And if that’s what we think of ourselves, what are we likely to do? Live from our identity! By the same token, if I realize I’ve done something wrong and choose to agree with God and ask His help to change I can step into the identity of “son” or “daughter” and I know I am cared about. My identity as God’s loved son has me doing things that are worthy of that identity.

No amount of feeling bad will ever make the payment for or justify what we have done wrong. Wrong things done have consequences and hurt people or hurt us. Self-inflicted pain from guilt doesn’t actually make us right before God because, "God is the one who justifies (makes us right before Him)" (Rom. 8:33b). Condemning ourselves after we have done something wrong gives us a false sense of being "good" again. Self-condemnation keeps us bent on earning a sense of right standing before God and prevents us from putting our faith in the suffering Christ did for us and the pain He felt on our behalf. Self-condemnation gives us a false sense of goodness before God.

Remember I said it would take me a long time to draw back close to God after I made a mistake. Then finally I was able to but slowly. I learned that I needed to stop closing myself off from God! I needed to learn to accept God’s love in the most practical of ways. God knew my sin before I ever knew Him and He knows my sin after I come to know Him. Surely His love for me and His kindness toward me is not less now than before I was ever aware of how Christ died for me and gave Himself for me.

Trying to motivate improvement by condemning ourselves makes it so we want to hide from God—not draw near to Him. It closes us off inside. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people..." (Matthew 23:13; see also 2 Corinthians 3:17). When we try to motivate our own repentance or anybody else’s and hope for change by condemnation we are being pharisaical and are shutting ourselves—and others—from the freedom necessary for experiencing closeness to God.

If there is only one "guideline" I could give you about changing your heart after you have done something wrong it’s to have you let go of the need for self-condemnation. Directing your heart away from self-condemnation is not easy. We have this notion that to have any compassion for ourselves is wrong. The Bible tells us to love others and treat them with respect and compassion and love. But if we were to tape record the malicious, disrespecting and mean-spirited things we say ABOUT ourselves when we fail, we might all be shocked. We have to learn to speak truth about ourselves.

We can say things like “the way I just spoke to my teenager was rude and disrespectful. That is not the way you want me to act, God. Please help me exercise self-control around this young person to build her up and help her become the person you want her to be. Lord, don’t let me flog myself and go into a tailspin but just repent, get your help and move on to being a more loving parent.” This may take repeated efforts to change the way we talk to ourselves. We are not to slander others and we certainly shouldn’t slander ourselves. My encouragement to you in this is to not ever give up on this effort! It will take practice but it will bring life back to you and those you are around.

Please don’t miss these two things. Repentance requires that you retrain your heart to stop trusting self-inflicted guilt and that you start trusting Christ’s ability to help you live this new life with His help. Christ paid for the sins you committed and that is an amazing gift. But the gift keeps giving in that He also gave you the power to live a new kind of life. For repenting to function without crippling regret we have to retrain our hearts. We really have to think hard about what we believe in our heart is the best way to correct ourselves and do better the next time. If you can delight in ministering to yourself in this way think of the delight you will have in ministering to others in this way! Kindness towards yourself as you are learning to be a better, more loving person is as powerful as kindness towards others. There is actually nothing biblical about being mean to others or being mean to yourself! There is a wonderful verse in the Bible that says “it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.” That is true and I really believe God wants His kindness towards us to spill over into our own kindness toward ourselves.

Observe your reaction when you do something wrong. Do you stay away from God? What gives you freedom to draw near to God again? Kindness! God’s kindness! Do you trust the forgiveness of God because you made yourself feel badly for long enough? Try something new. See if you can trust the forgiveness of God because of the power of the cross and God’s cleansing of your whole self.

We won’t ever live right before God if we are motivated by self-condemnation! Consider it sin to feel any sense of justification or righteousness because of how much pain you inflict on yourself through self-condemnation. The security you need is not from how well you protect yourself from God. Hate any sense of "righteousness" you feel because of self-inflicted pain from condemnation.

Teach Your Heart to treat yourself like you want to treat others. Discipline motivated by fear, self-condemnation, and guilt won’t change you at the deep levels that are needed. There is too much in life coming at us too fast for us to treat ourselves this way. You have to help yourself to not fall into the pattern of trying to flog yourself for your mistakes and sin. It isn't enough for you to know in your head that self-condemnation is an ineffective and sinful way to repent. Your heart has to learn a more effective way to correct unwanted behaviors and turn to God. You may need to ask God, the Great Healer, to show you what is true about your heart so you can understand what is going on. And what keeps you from accepting God’s unfailing love and kindness toward you as you pick yourself up after a mistake or a sin . . . with His help.

Remember that shame lives best in darkness, isolation and our “not telling.” When you get brave enough to tell God exactly what happened and exactly how it is making you feel, you have brought your concern and your pain into the light by telling your story. And you are no longer alone. God has infinite patience for us and our lives. And our smallest attempts to live in His light. It is hard, but with practice it gets easier. And our burdens get lifted right off our shoulders!

Use thanks and praise to help your heart hear how good and safe it is to trust the cross of Christ. Listen to what you are thanking God about! React with thanks and praise at the slightest indication of self-condemnation or self-based righteousness.

“Father, I am a mess. I’ve done it again. And I am SO ashamed of myself I can barely stand it! I am trying not to hate myself and my actions. You are a holy God and look what I just said to my stepdaughter in such a mean tone of voice. What was I thinking?! But I understand you are my Papa. And that you love me in spite of the worst thing I think or do. And I am amazed. Thank you God! I believe I am your son. Well, I’m starting to. So I am telling you my sin but I know you say you’ll forgive me. I really struggle with believing that but right now I guess I just will believe you. Thank you. Now Papa, will you help me clean up this mess with this young stepdaughter of mine and reconnect with her? I believe you, God that you want to do this for me. This is so hard to be so honest with you, but here I am, God. Thank you….”

Get your heart to hear that it is far more effective to change by hearing thanks and praise to God for the truth about how God truly feels about you and your situation. The cross is more powerful than your sin. Thank the Lord with great joy that you don't have to put your faith in the severity of your self-condemnation. Delight your heart by praise toward God that you don’t have to wait to trust the forgiveness of God until you are "done feeling bad."

Biblical repentance is a more effective way to grow—a way of delight toward God—not of contempt toward yourself. You have to get to the heart of the matter—without self-condemnation. Delight can help you change. Joy is the strongest bond known to man and the joy of the Lord is our strength. It binds our heart with God’s. We need God’s strength in our lives. Don’t shut yourself off from God when you make a mistake. He is the only Person who is completely trustworthy with your heart!

Christians tend to feel: “I have something wrong inside and so why shouldn't I hide from God?’ But God is the one who gave us this spiritual awareness to begin with, right? So why do we feel we need to hide from Him when He knows all about us? Would you hide from your doctor after you found out you had an infection? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive, especially if this doctor was willing and able to help you? We have to learn to accept that something is wrong in our lives but that we can still move forward with repentance because God loves and understands us. If you have this awareness you can be sure that God is calling you closer to Himself. But He also wants you to take steps to turn the affections of your heart more fully toward Him. Remember that you can move forward without having to punish yourself into improvement over and over for the same sin!

The thing is when you sin…repent…do a 180 away from the sin and toward God… then you really are free to let it go because God has let it go. Once forgiven of a sin you are truly forgiven by God. It doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for our actions while on earth because with sin comes consequences, but once we are truly repentant and forgiven by God that sin is gone for all eternity. Let it go and just move on and do what is right. Sounds simple, right? But it takes practice like any wonderful habit of friendship or relationship.

Next time you sin again run to the Lord! Don’t stay away because you sinned. Give it to God and get in right standing with Him right then. He wants this for you! He wants to help you walk closer to him every day and not get drug down by staying stuck in sorrow about your sin. He’d rather help you walk as a precious son or daughter who knows you are forgiven. And are being helped up to keep walking on a good path with him! Do it right on the spot even if you don’t feel like it. He has already made you in right standing with Him. His grace and forgiveness of you is big! Accept His free gift so you can keep moving. And move with new freedom! It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!

Mark Phelps

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    Excellent counsel and ministry! I could relate to many of these paragraphs. I believe this is one of the most critical issues and is responsible for people falling from faith - probably more than any other single factor. I believe it can be summed up in the one verse, "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, . . . " We received Him knowing that we were worthless, helpless, and hopeless. But over time Christians think they should know better and be better - instead of finding all of their identity in Christ and leaving self-evaluation behind. Self criticism is just another form of selfishness.
    Keep up the good work as the Lord re-fills you for the next blog.
    Your bro and fellow worker in Christ,