What if I fail at repentance?

For GQ - 20061011

There are parts of my life I’m not happy about. I still struggle with habits I hate. I’m sorry for what I’ve done and I want to change. Going by the dictionary definition, that means I’ve repented. Then why do I still feel unsettled? What is repentance and what does it look like in practice? I’ve come to see there are at least three ways for me not to repent — and they’re not all bad as long as I see them for the games they are.

The games we play — Repentance 101

When we struggle with ongoing or habitual sins, we sometimes play mind games with ourselves in our frustration, and it’s good to take a look at some of these. Here are three that trip me up a lot:

I’m going to make it right. Sometimes my turning back to the light is all about me. I will become a better person. I will prove that I’m a good Christian. I will get God to love me again. Doesn’t feel much like a life of faith. And it doesn’t feel like an effort I can sustain when the tough times come again.

I don’t really want to change. Yeah, it’s nice to ask for forgiveness. But sometimes I know that deep down, I plan to give in to that temptation when I face it again. It’s just too attractive and, at least for a while, it seems to wash away that empty feeling that’s too much a part of me. Oh yeah, and the best part is I can ask for forgiveness again.

I want to be perfect. Aren’t we supposed to be perfect like our heavenly Father? If I keep turning away from my sin, I’ll get more control over it and leave more and more of it behind.

No matter what the dictionary says, none of these work for me. In my attempts to be spiritual and repent, I instead find myself full of pride — lying, and deluded about my own goodness.

A better alternative

Instead of playing those games, I turn to wisdom that a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous shared with me. The struggles of AA members have taught them to approach God humbly, expecting change to happen only one day at a time. My repenting makes more sense when I realize I don’t have the power to turn from evil and I ask God to just help me today. It helps to be reminded that God is the source of our desire and ability to repent (2 Timothy 2:25-26, Acts 11:18). We can only repent when the Holy Spirit has created in us a deep conviction of wrongdoing and a desire to see change.

In AA, that truth leads to two kinds of people: those who say God turned their “one day at a time” into years without a drink and those who have fallen again, but have a friend to pick them up.

Whatever my personal temptations are, people who’ve discovered grace and the love of friends sound like the kind of people I’d like to be in fellowship with.

—Ben Russell