Early in our marriage, my wife and I lived in married housing at her university while I commuted to my nearby Christian college. It was not uncommon to walk by one of the dining halls at her school and hear an “evangelist” exhorting passing students to repent. It was not a pleasant experience. Many of them had no idea what the word “repent” meant. For many impressionable college students, their first experience with it came in the context of harsh yelling, accompanied by threats of damnation: Turn or burn. Not surprisingly, those evangelists met with little success.
A recent conversation with a woman I’ll call Mrs. B deepened my understanding of the word repent. While telling me about her work as a special-education teacher’s assistant, she spoke honestly of how the days of exhaustion often drove her to ask God if there were another job she could do. She wanted to move in a different direction with her life and started to consider the possibilities. Each time she heard the same response: Flourish where you’re planted.
I learned more about repentance from Mrs. B than I had in any sermon or seminary class. Each time she resolved in her heart to leave her job for something different, she was drawn back. Her story connected deeply with me.
In Matthew 4:17 Jesus’ primary message was “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Here he commands us to change our minds and purposes. This is what took place in Mrs. B’s heart every time she returned to her work. Wanting to leave may not have been a sin, but in order to truly flourish she had to reverse her thinking and rededicate herself to serving where she was.
Whether you are a new Christian or a long-time believer, you may remember that repentance was part of your conversion experience, but practicing repentance does not stop there. I like to look at it as a continual process of course corrections. As with my friend Mrs. B, there are plenty of times when my heart goes off on a course very different from the one that moves me toward obedience to God. This can lead to some very poor decisions. In those moments, change is necessary in my attitude and in what I understand as my purpose. Repentance is the change that puts me back on course.
Where is repentance needed in your life?
Jack Radcliffe is a husband and father of four, coach (www.redwoodcoach.com), ministry trainer and speaker, dean of the Youth Ministry Institute of the Tennessee Conference UMC, and adjunct professor at Martin Methodist College. He has an M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio and a D.Min. in Practical Theology, Adolescent Development, and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary.