The Process Of Repentance

Psalm 32.

Reflecting on sorrow for sins, Psalm 32 is one of seven Penitential Psalms or Psalms of Confession (viz., Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), categorised as such in Cassiodorus’ commentary of the 6th century. Repentance is synonymous with the Christian life and unless we become inured to its implications and process, our rapport with Yahweh is likely to be in jeopardy. Pertinently, the psalmist draws our attention that it is emphatically God’s prerogative to forgive, to cover our shame, and to restore the sinner back to a state of grace to full humanity in Christ (Ps 32:1-2). Incidentally, the word ‘blessed,’ or ‘happy’ in most translations, is an inadequate definition for the Hebrew root ‘to go forward’ or ‘to go straight,’ which implies a way of life rather than a condition. Guilt, as a human trait, possesses a curious symptom that is ingrained and enduring, and it can, if unresolved over a period of time, result in physiological symptoms that are either psychosomatic or authentic: viz., “my body wasted away… my groaning all day long…my vitality was drained away (Ps 32:3-4). At times, guilt can and do make us very ill, as there is an obsessional quality about it that resists our efforts to repress it. Conscience and guilt are irretrievably linked, and intrinsically, we have minimal control over both. The normal attempts at handling our guilt may involve the following: from avoidance to shifting the blame to others or disparaging others; from resorting to drugs, alcohol, or splurging to numb our sensations to irrationally and cynically explaining it away; from over-achieving or over-compensating to doing penance. None of these absolves our conscience in the long-term, but they are just symptoms of a deeper malaise of our alienation from our Creator.

When our conscience has been sensitised towards obeying God’s laws as a result of a relationship with the Almighty, guilt due to sin causes a loss of our moral integrity before God, disclosing our shame. Our desire to invariably control our destiny in solving problems apart from God would further uncover us. When we acknowledge and confess them to Him, only God is able to forgive our transgressions and alleviate its accompanying guilt (Ps 32:1-2,5). God’s forgiveness is tied into the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and hence it is never on the basis of our own efforts: “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness’ (Rom 4:5). And with forgiveness, God’s own righteousness is credited or reckoned to be ours (Rom 4:22-25, i.e., imputed to us; c.f., 1Peter 2:24; 2Cor 5:21). So, what is the process of repentance?

The initial element is to be brutally honest and transparent about one’s transgressions against God (Ps 32:5, with no deceit in one’s inner being; c.f., Ps 51:4), with an unavoidable realization that no amount of blame-shifting is going to diminish our responsibility (Ps 32:3-5). Often our willful individuality is the cause of our stepping outside of our hidden position in Christ into sin. Repentance not only entails a confession of our sins but it includes a forsaking of our righteousness (i.e., in ourselves) that birthed the sins, and seeking God’s grace by remaining in Christ (Ps 32:7). It appears that our perpetual glaring misdemeanour is to forget that sin deeply hurts God (Isa 63:10; Rom 2:23), hence the need for that sacrifice on Golgotha. It is instructive that God chose to speak at this point to draw our attention to His purpose in our repentance: to repent is to admit human fallibility and to relentlessly and swiftly seek His forgiveness to reconnect with Him as soon as possible, in order to learn how to be more teachable to avoid similar pitfalls in future (Ps 32:8-9). The metaphor of the ‘bit and bridle’ posits a restraint towards sinning that comes through taking instructions from the Lord (Ps 32:6-8). And the outcome of repentance: “he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him” (Ps 32:10-11). The psalm concludes with God’s daily grace of forgiveness that allows us to know how to obey Him, for God does reckon us righteous in Christ.