Why is “repentance” so hard?

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2

“They went out and preached that people should repent.” Mark 6:12

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:32

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:7

The concept of “repentance” is a consistent, central theme of the Bible. And though it’s sometimes expounded in translations (“crying out to the Lord”, “returning to the Lord”, “humbling oneself before the Lord”, etc.) it is unmistakably one of the most often repeated concepts throughout scripture. (Personally, the only two concepts I would rank more popular than “repentance” are 1. man’s need to repent (i.e. his perpetual sinning), and 2. God’s unfailing love and patience with humanity as we work through the “sinning” part to get to “repentance”.)

But why does this little word prove to be so difficult to incorporate into our lives?

In my undergraduate days studying philosophy, I wrote an ethics paper dissecting the concept of “cheating”. Part of my thesis was that it’s logically impossible to “cheat ourselves”. Because we know everything we’re doing, we can’t possibly defraud ourselves or sneak around without us knowing. (Basically, the same head that decides to do something is the same head that decides whether it’s right to do it.) Occasionally, we all do things we know are wrong, but we make exceptions that let us logically get away with something while still preserving our moral compass. In practice, it looks like this:

“I know I’m not supposed to take something without paying, but they charged me too much last time, so I’ll just take an extra one now and everything will be fine.”

We take part in actions that we know we shouldn’t, but there is always a reason for us to do so. There’s always some justification about why this time is different, why it’s okay to make an exception for me / for this time / for whatever. Even when someone says, “I had no choice. There was a gun to my head,” (be that literally or figuratively), there’s always a choice. It’s just that “Option B” is often pretty terrible. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Se7en, the villain relies on this type of persuasion to get his victims to do bad things.)

The main point of that philosophy paper was that every time everyone does anything, they always think they are right (you know, considering all the complicated circumstances, of course…)

As it turns out, there’s some biology supporting this, too.

A good friend of mine recently shared an article with me about how the human brain functions. The article was written as a comic strip, so it’s easily consumable. (It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it to anyone, either for their own self-assessment and awareness, or just to better understand the craziness that we all sometimes encounter.) But, the medical implications are just as poignant. According to the article, the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute did a research study to investigate how people responded to intellectual threats. They connected brain-activity monitoring equipment to participants and then presented them with arguments that contradicted deeply-held beliefs. They found that the human brain reacts to these intellectual threats the exact same way it reacts to physical threats.

In practice, our responses (the actions we take next) are very similarly whether we’re attached physically or intellectually. When someone threatens us physically, we either physically fight back, or we flee the area. Fight or flight. When someone assaults us intellectually, the same fight-or-flight reflex kicks in. We either fight back (engage in an argument or discussion) or flee (ignore what they are saying and “flee” the dialog.) The “fleeing” part is also known as: brushing someone off, ignoring someone, rolling your eyes, or – my favorite – just smiling politely and not engaging.

And overcoming that intellectual fight-or-flight is what makes repentance so freaking hard.

If everyone always thinks that they are correct or justified, when someone or something (like our conscience) tells us that what we’re doing is wrong, we shift into the fight-or-flight mentality. To fight means that we take a stand in our own defense and justify our position (“yeah, of course I know what the speed limit was, but you see I was in a hurry to…”)

By the way, everyone tries to talk their way out of tickets. The only successful response I have ever seen, and I have seen it work with 100% success, is some version of: “yes officer. What I was doing was wrong. There’s no excuse.” And then, silence. No argument. …FYI.

Alternatively, we flee and don’t engage at all. Any of these sound familiar?

  • “Mind your own business.”
  • “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
  • “It’s complicated.”
  • “Okay. Thanks for your opinion.”

You’ll notice that none of those look anything like actual repentance. The textbook definition speaks of being sorry, but the biblical usage of “repent” is always used to describe a “turning away from”. Renouncing. Turning away from “your old life,” as if to say, “I no longer want to do that, and I no longer think it’s okay.” And that usually comes with a confession. Here, the English language helps us a little more, as the original definition of the word “confess” actually means “to admit with”, as in, to agree with someone. When we “confess” our sins, we are agreeing with God that what we did was wrong, just like agreeing with a police officer that our fast driving was wrong. The thing to remember, though, is that for as good as police officers are at determining when people are lying, God is significantly better at it than anyone. He knows when we actually repent, regardless of what we say.

So, if repenting means to turn away from our sins and admit that what we did was wrong, but that’s so hard because everything we do we think is the right thing to do (given all the information in our circumstances, of course) what next?

Luke 6:45: “…for out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

I suppose it’s fair to project that up to actions as well: “out of an overflow of the heart, the hands do.”

As Lent draws to a close, if you find that you’re still struggling to change what comes out of your mouth, or what comes forth from your hands, focus on changing your heart.

There’s an old story about people challenged with the scientific task of removing all the air from a glass. One person hooked it up to a pump, but the pump didn’t get all the air out, plus it was now stuck to the pump until someone released the valve; but then it filled up with air again. Another took a more creative approach and destroyed the glass, but that kinda defeated the purpose. The last person, though, simply filled the glass with water. Such is also true for our lives – rather than trying to take the bad things out and not sin, when we fill our hearts with God, there just really isn’t much room left over for anything less.

One thought on “Why is “repentance” so hard?

  1. I think we can all look inside and find some reason to always be ok with what we think….what we do. Human nature. But I like your example of filling the glass with water. I think the hard part of removing something (anything from a bad thought to a true addiction) is trying to fill that empty space. Being repentant & changing is easier when we quickly realize its time to replace & replenish.


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