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The gift of tears

IT MUST feel strange to Christians of earlier generations if they were to attend modern worship services. One of the things they would find extremely odd is the absence of the prayer of confession which is an essential part of the worship service.

Could it be that it is no longer fashionable to talk about sin, human depravity, and our need for repentance in God’s presence? Or perhaps it is due to a lack of biblical and liturgical understanding of what worship is among well-intentioned but inadequately trained worship leaders.

Jesus began His public ministry with a clear and profoundly simple message: “Repent and believe” (Mk. 1:15). The sermon that Peter preached when the Church was constituted at Pentecost can be summarised as “Repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:38). We must not fail to notice the importance that both our Lord and the apostles gave to repentance. It was central to their message.

There may be some who might think that the messages of Jesus and Peter were their first sermons intended mainly for those who needed to be evangelised and converted. But is that true? Is repentance only required of those who are about to become Christians? What about long-standing Christians? Do they ever graduate from the need to repent? Scripture tells us that repentance is required all through our lives. Our experience supports this.

Peter, when writing to Christians, keeps emphasising the importance of repentance. He writes: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Pet. 2:1). As long as one is unable to say that he has finally got rid of these sins completely, he continues to be in need of repentance. Peter also points out that there were those in the church who had “left the straight way” and who “never stop sinning” (2 Pet. 14-15). Worse, they were leading others astray and their condition was worse than it was before they became Christians (vv. 17-22). In explaining the delay in Christ’s return, Peter declares that the Lord was patient with them, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

It is clear that repentance is an essential aspect of our Christian lives. We enter the Christian life through repentance and we grow and mature in it through repentance (or as Frederica Mathewes-Green in The Illumined Heart has put it, repentance is both the door and path of the Christian life). Repentance must therefore be taken seriously.

It is vitally important that in worship services time is given for worshippers to confess their sins to God, to repent and experience God’s forgiveness. This can be further enhanced by making it personal and I mean it in two ways.

Firstly, even when there is a prayer of confession, it is often too general and impersonal. Worshippers tend to read the text without their sins in mind and without a broken heart. There is therefore no transaction between a sinful soul and a holy God. This can be rectified in part by a biblically informed and Spirit-led worship leader (ideally the pastor) who can help worshippers to pray the prayer of confession sincerely and meaningfully.

Secondly, repentance must be seen from a relational perspective. It is true that sin is transgression or the breaking of the moral law. When we realise we have broken a moral law, we often feel guilty. But our understanding of sin and repentance must go deeper. We need to realise that when we sin we not only break the law, but also the Lawgiver’s heart. This will profoundly change our experience of repentance when we realise that we have hurt our heavenly Father’s heart.

A common thread that runs through Scripture is the God whose heart is broken by human sin, or as theologian Jurgen Moltmann has put it, “the Crucified God”. We read in Scripture that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each grieved by human sin (Gen. 6:6; Mk. 3:5; Eph. 4:30). When we understand this, we will take neither sin nor our need for repentance lightly.

Our repentance must be personal in that it is relational. We must not only feel guilt because we have broken the law but we must also feel godly sorrow in realising that we have broken God’s heart. When I was a youth I was taught that every time we sinned it was like crucifying Jesus afresh. Perhaps there was pastoral value in that, (though we know that Jesus died “once for all” – 1 Pet. 3:18), in the sense that it saw sin and repentance in such interpersonal terms.

When repentance is experienced in terms of our relationship with God, often there is a pouring out of tears (or as Martin Luther put it, “heartwater”). It is a sign that God is dealing with the spiritual abscesses deeply embedded in our souls. Healing, relief, and spiritual growth follow. In the early church, tears were seen as a spiritual gift and an important aspect of the Christian life. They were intimately connected to deep repentance, which according to Tertullian, was the work of God in our lives. Such tears are shed because repentance was understood in terms of our relationship with God. That is to say, when we sin we bring pain to God’s heart.

When we repent, we begin to understand and realise the depth of this pain in God’s heart caused by our sinfulness (Gen. 6:6). We then experience painful sorrow in our own hearts. This coming together of the divine pain of a holy and loving God and the sorrowful pain of a repentant human heart brings about deep transformation. This repentance then becomes the fertile soil for vibrant growth of the soul. For when we repent we discover the depths of God’s grace and forgiveness and the beauty and majesty of His love.

May this Lent season, therefore, be a time when we rediscover our need for repentance . It is time to discover that sin is not a harmless toy but a deadly weapon in our hands that can terribly hurt God (just think of the cross) when we abuse the freedom and power that the Sovereign God has given us in love. And for that reason we must come to hate sin because it hurts God.

Refer to helpful suggestions on “a daily repentance workout” in an excellent article on repentance by Frederica Mathewes-Green in http://www.frederica.com/orthodox/repentance.html

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