Repentance for Good People

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodgial Son" Which son is lost? The one is rags or the one outside his father's embrace?

A young son wakes up in a pig sty after squandering his father’s inheritance. He looks at the pieces of his broken life and begins dreaming of home. With only a wistful hope that his father will take him back as a servant, the son begins the long journey home and back into a loving father’s embrace.  This is repentance as Jesus defined it. It is the way we become a Christian. It is the way we live our lives as a Christian. Repentance is core.

The sin of this son was obvious. He told his father, “I wish you were dead” and went off and squandered half of the family estate. There are times when I fail horribly and I feel like the younger son. Repentance is easy in those moments. But that’s not me most of the time, so I often struggle with repentance. How can I make repentance more meaningful than a half-hearted, “sorry God for everything.”  The psalms and Psalm 50 in particular has been a valuable guide into fresh and meaningful repentant prayer.

The psalm opens with God, the Mighty One, summoning the peoples of the earth to gather before his throne. Humanity is divided into two groups, the people of God (Israel) and the wicked. So far we are not surprised, for we see the world in the same categories.

God speaks, but I’m shocked when he begins by addressing me. He testifies against the righteous, even though he is fully aware of the lies, slander and deceit of the wicked. Our sin, not the sins of the wicked, are his primary concern.

So what’s the problem? Are we not committed enough? Have we not done enough? That’s not it at all.

Psalm 50:8, 12 I don’t rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine … If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

God doesn’t need our sacrifices.  He doesn’t need our church attendance, our visits to a soup kitchen, the money we give, the amount of time we pray and read the Bible. He doesn’t cry tears of joy when you give up chocolate for Lent.

You see there are two ways to sin. The ‘wicked’ way is tell God, “to hell with you, I’m going to live any way I choose.” But wicked people aren’t the only ones who need a savior. Good religious people need to repent as well. Our sin is more subtle. What was God’s problem with his people? The people had deluded themselves into thinking that God needed their sacrifices. If you have a god that needs you, then you have a god who owes you.

Tim Keller put it this way. Pagan people try to control God by ignoring him. Religious people try to control God through their obedience.We all lie, we all steal, we all commit adultery (remember what Jesus said about looking lustfully at another person). But there is a sin that is far more dangerous for “good” people. It is the good things we do in order to manipulate God into giving us what we want.

Israel offered sacrifices to God because they thought he was hungry. In their minds they reduced the self-sufficient God who had created heaven and earth for no other reason than love, to a starving idol who depended on the sacrifices of people for food. God doesn’t love us because of what we offer him. He needs nothing that we might give him. He loves us … just because.

We spurn this grace and greatly offend God when we twist him into a voracious idol who demands his pound of flesh as payment for a good marriage, well-behaved kids, sound finances and a successful career. Do I give generously because I believe that God will provide for me or because I’m afraid that God will destroy my finances if I don’t? Am I honest because I believe that my reputation is secure in Christ or because I am afraid that God and other people will not love a liar? It is so subtle that an outside observer often can’t tell the difference.

This sin has an even uglier side. I’ve seen my own heart blackened by disappointed rage. You know when life deals you a significant blow and you offer prayers laced with anger through clenched teeth. “After all my service to you God, I know I deserve better.” It is in these moments that our hearts are exposed. We don’t love God for who he is. We obey God to get stuff from him.  I wonder if that is worse than a person who simply chooses to ignore God’s law?

So I’m beginning to learn to repent not only for the lies and the slander, but also for the good things I do with selfish motives. I believe that John Gertsner was right:

“The main thing between you and God is not so much your sins; it’s your damnable good works. ”

But that still leaves me with one question. If God doesn’t want my sacrifices, what does he want?

Psalm 50:14-15 Sacrifice thank offering to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you , and you will honor me.

God wants nothing else than a life energized by gratitude and joy. He wants us to enjoy him. He wants us live not as fearful slaves, but as daughters and sons who have experienced God’s grace and revel in a God who loves them … just because.

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