Is regretting our sins and crying out for forgiveness true repentance? I used to think that a dinnertime prayer of “Dear Lord, I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” was sufficient. But repentance is more than just the right words in a prayer. It’s even more than a regretful spirit.
Consider the kingdom of Moab in the Book of Isaiah: “In the streets they wear sackcloth; on the roofs and in the public squares they all wail, prostrate with weeping” (Isaiah 15:3). Yet, despite their outward regret and sorrow, “… the Lord says: ‘Within three years, as a servant bound by contract would count them, Moab’s splendor and all her many people will be despised, and her survivors will be very few and feeble’” (Isaiah 16:14).
Why then was Nineveh, when thrown into a similar situation (in the Book of Jonah), saved by God? Like the Moabites, the people of Nineveh covered themselves in sackcloth and wailed in the streets – but their king also gave out a proclamation asking everyone to “call urgently on God” and to “give up their evil ways and their violence” (Jonah 3:8). In contrast, Isaiah says, “We have heard of Moab’s pride—her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and her insolence—but her boasts are empty” (Isaiah 16:6). Therefore, “When Moab appears at her high place, she only wears herself out; when she goes to her shrine to pray, it is to no avail” (Isaiah 16:12).
Here lies the critical difference: Nineveh’s repentance was a result of turning back to God, whereas Moab’s repentance was a result of wanting to avoid the consequences of its sin. Moab, unlike Nineveh, did not try to give its their evil ways and its violence; instead, the Moabites merely “lament[ed] their destruction” (Isaiah 15:5).
Simply being sad does not necessarily constitute repentance. Are we sad because we’ve grieved God or are we sad because we have to suffer as a result of the sin? The former is godly sorrow; the latter is worldly sorrow. It is critical in repentance to realize how much sin hurts God and to be sincerely contrite that the committed sin has pushed us away from God.
So repentance, in the end, is all about God. It is about mending a relationship that sin has disrupted. It is about realizing our brokenness without God and having a contrite heart that our sin has saddened him.
Psalm 51:16-17 puts it best: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”