I recently studied the book of Jonah and grew in my love for it once again. I love the age-old story of a man being swallowed by a large fish – an event I would love to witness at some point in my life.
I also love Jonah’s highly emotive character. I mean, seriously, how can you be praising God’s salvific power in one moment only to pout like a 3-year-old girl the next day because God saved a sea of people?
But this time my strongest impression was on the subject of repentance. The book of Jonah gives us VIP seating to exactly what repentance is and exactly what it is not. We see that real repentance derives from a supernatural heart change initiated by a movement of God.
We see the effects of God moving in the mariners as they began to fear Him, sacrifice to Him and make vows to Him (Jonah 1:16). This newfound worship of God was a drastic change from where they were moments before, each crying out to their own gods (Jonah 1:5).
Change is the key aspect here. Change is the final component in real repentance.
But before we see any signs of change, we see the fear of the Lord – something missing from our culture today. We like to think of God as our friend – not our righteous Judge. It is true: Jesus is a friend of sinners, but that doesn’t mean that the more we sin, the better friends we will become.
This idea has created in us a solace with sin. We don’t mind sin in our lives because we don’t see it as offensive. How quickly we’ve forgotten that sin, whether immediately damaging to us or not, is incredibly offensive to a holy God.
I’m reminded of David’s words in Psalm 51:4: “Against you and you only have I sinned.” David says these words after committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband. Was he aloof to the fact that he had sinned against others? Not at all. But he certainly understood that his primary offense was to a holy God.
Real repentance is accurately realizing whom you’ve wronged. What does your confession of sin look like? Confession is step one of repentance. Maybe you’re quick to confess horizontally to the person you’ve wronged because you don’t enjoy relational tension. But what does your vertical confession look like?
Repentance is too often us simply saying, “I’m sorry.” But being “sorry” is a cheap imitation for real repentance and will lead us back to the same situation. We lack the “sorrow” in our “sorry.” Having sorrow means that you feel someone’s loss and carry that person’s burden. The key to feeling sorrow is to actually feel.
Sorrow leads us to the second step in real repentance – contrition. Having contrition is to feel how God feels about your sin. I struggle in this area. I don’t want to feel pain, much less emotional pain, so my tendency is to flee from the possibility of feeling anything I don’t have to.
Moving from being simply sorry to feeling actual sorrow is a step in the right direction, but it cannot stop there. We cannot just leave things confessed and with contrition in our hearts. Contrition should lead to change.
This illustrates the gulf that lies between a worldly sorrow and a godly sorrow. Worldly sorrow is a mist on a rock that evaporates in a short time and leaves nothing significant, but godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7.10). It leads to life. Did you catch that? Real repentance – confession, contrition and change – leads to life.