The Sisters of Repentance and Lament
NOVEMBER 2, 2022
At the heart of lament is helplessness.
What is repentance? The word comes from a Greek word, meaning “a change of mind.” It is not an action, but an attitude. It is the recognition of who God is (holy, righteous, sovereign, and good) and who you are (not holy, righteous, sovereign, and good) and going to God with it. The natural demeanor of repentance is lament. Sometimes that lament is with tears, great sorrow, or great shame, and sometimes it is just an agreement with God without excuse or spin. The “sisters” of repentance and lament can be seen in the words of the prodigal son when he returns home to his father and not in the words of the “righteous” brother who never left (Luke 15). Repentance and lament are clearly expressed by the man who prayed in the temple who knew he was so bad that he could ask for nothing but mercy, and not in the righteous man who didn’t think that he needed mercy (Luke 18).
At the heart of lament is helplessness. That’s obvious, for instance, when a lament is over the death of a loved one (there is little one can do to fix death), but it may not be so obvious in other areas. Our rebellion and sin are, of course, sad, but not on the level of lament about death, cancer, or poverty because, with our sin, we can repent and change. We can turn around, do better, and become the good person we want to be. Actually, we can’t. It’s just hard to admit it. But when you do, it’s called repentance.
There are three classes of sin. One is a simple sin like saying “damn” at a women’s tea. One simply resolves not to do that again. The second class of sin is a besetting sin like anger, lust, and greed. Sometimes we get temporary victory, but it still comes back and bites us from time to time. The third class of sin is obsessive sin. That’s where one is totally helpless to change and to do what is good, pure, and righteous. When we think that the “damn” is worth a tear, the anger, lust, and greed worth more tears, and the obsessive sin worth true lament and sobs, we never lament with the power that lament gives. The Bible teaches that all sin is obsessive and therefore lamentable. Once we begin to get that, we have taken the first step on the road to freedom—not the spurious freedom that comes from going from being a bad person to being a good person, but the freedom that God gives to people who know how impossible getting there is.
Psalm 51 is David’s lament after committing the horrible sins of adultery and murder. In that Psalm, we can sense the great pain of David’s lament as he cries out,
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. . . For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (vv. 1, 3, 5, 16–17)
Now the question. If the lament of repentance is the pathway to laughter and freedom, how do we get there? Telling yourself that you are a horrible sinner and deserving of nothing but God’s wrath may be speaking truth to your heart, but it doesn’t work and it’s not even close to enough. Intellectual assent to biblical truth about your sin is a good thing, but that doesn’t work either, nor does a theological analysis of human sin. The only thing that will set you free is worship. And not just any kind of worship of any kind of god, but genuine worship of the holy, sovereign, righteous, and big God revealed in the Scriptures.
Let me give you a principle: Genuine worship leads to awareness, awareness leads to the lament of repentance, lament and repentance lead to a reordering of one’s perception of oneself, others, and the world . . . and that leads to laughter and freedom.
Do you know why unbelievers don’t pray? They don’t pray because they’re afraid that God might be there. Do you know why many Christians don’t pray? Some don’t pray because they’re afraid that God might not be there, and, those who know that he is, also know that God is scary. Many of us would rather do religious stuff, do our best to be obedient, and stay under the radar with our silent trying, than to go before a holy, sovereign, and righteous God. It’s safer that way.
No, it’s not.
Confession, lament, and repentance are hard if you do it to someone who is angry and condemning, and who doesn’t give a rip about you. It is one thing to go before an executioner and quite another to go before a loving father. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples has an incredibly radical beginning—Jesus said we were to start our prayer with “Our Father.” When you start there, the “forgive us our debts” is a whole lot easier.
Do you know the source of true joy and freedom? It’s repentance before a God who should discipline you, but instead hugs you. It’s walking into a dark room and then someone turns on the lights of a Christmas tree. It’s expecting to be condemned, but finding that you’re loved. It’s lamenting who you are, and then realizing who you really are, the child of your Father the King. It’s no longer having anything to prove or protect. It’s no longer having to be right or to pretend to be good.
The most powerful and perhaps the scariest prayer we can pray is, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me . . .” (Psalm 139:23–24). It is also a prayer that, when prayed by a Christian, is always answered. God always says, “This will hurt some, but don’t leave until you get loved.” It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you are, what you’ve done or what you’re doing, who you’ve hurt or those you still hurt, and the sins you’ve committed or the ones you’re still committing, repentance and lament are in order and worth it . . . because they lead to freedom and laughter.
Adapted from Steve’s new book, Laughter and Lament: The Radical Freedom of Joy and Sorrow.