What Is Repentance?


One of the things that saddens me most about where we are in America at this stage in history is our inability to repent. And one of the reasons Americans are such strangers to repentance is that I don’t think we know what it is anymore.

I could quote a lot of Bible verses here, but if you want to find out more about repentance, do the due diligence and study it yourself. I’m just going to share what I know and keep it all simple.

And the simplest truth about repentance is that it’s turning back to God.

Notice that there’s nothing really added to that. I didn’t even mention sin.

The reason I didn’t mention bad things that you do is because sin isn’t really bad things that you do. Sin is what you are. Sin exists on the level of atoms, and DNA, and all those tiny bits that make up you, even bits that abide in the world of the spiritual. And for that reason, it’s why all the silly things religious people do to try to get rid of bad things inside themselves are such a fool’s errand.

OK, so I lied a little about Bible verses here. I’m going to reference Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Most people know the story, but if you don’t, it will be at the end of this post. I paraphrase below to get us thinking the same way…

A son came to his father and said, “I wish you were dead.” Because that was how he now viewed his father, the son demanded his father act as if he were dead, which meant the son demanded the still-living father hand over inheritance money. The father complied. And because the son was driven by the stupidity of sin down to the atomic level, he stayed true to that nature and did stupid, sinful things that took him to stupid, sinful places inhabited by stupid, sinful people. In short order, the money ran out, and the son took a lousy job in a lousy place and generally felt lousy.

In time, he missed his father. So the son left that place of stupidity and stumbled home, where his father was waiting for him with open arms. No lecture from the father, no recap of bad choices, just love.

I leave some of the details of that story to the theologians and preachers, but the key point of the story is not all the hooker-boinking and booze-hounding the son did on his inheritance spending spree. All the son was doing was being true to his nature, to that atomic level of sin that no one can deal with on his own because it’s always at work and permeates everything. The point of the story is that the son went back home to a father who loved him.

Detail from Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"The history of God throughout the Bible is of a father waiting at home for prodigals to come back to Him. The Bible starts with man wandering off and ends with man being at home with God forever.

In the prodigal’s story, the son didn’t try to mask his stupidity or somehow make amends for it. He just went back home. The father can deal with the stupidity and the filth. In reality, God does that through Jesus, who became sin on our behalf and dealt it a deathblow on the cross. The point is that the father knows the sin is there. He deals with it. All he wants is the wanderer to be home with him.

God throughout the Bible waits at home and calls stupid people, those infested with sin down to their cores—in short, everyone—to come back to Him. And when they do turn around and head back, it’s not to a household where the father has kept track of every stupid thing the prodigal has done, because the father isn’t interested in keeping a record of stupidity. No, the father is simply glad the wanderer is home.

And chances are, because prodigality is ingrained in humanity to the atomic level, that wanderer will likely go wandering again. But the father is steadfast, and he’ll be there at home with open arms. Because sometimes the truth about the father must be learned again and again. Fact is, in time, the wanderings do lessen. Maybe not to the point of going away entirely, but learning that the best is with the father begins to sink in over the course of a lifetime.

The sad reality about the story of the prodigal son is that a lot of prodigals out there prefer feeling lousy doing the lousy job in the lousy place to being at home with the father. They haven’t woken up yet and may never do so. They tend to be people whose point of reference doesn’t extend beyond their nose. For them, home and the father are two concepts that are a long way off in a faraway land, and they stay that way.

Hell isn’t filled with every person tainted by sin at the atomic level. It’s filled with people who don’t want to be where the Father is. They said to Him, “I wish you were dead,” and they left it at that. In a way, they found their hellaciously alien “home” away from home and made it permanent. They never came back to their real home from their place in that far-off land. They never came back to the father awaiting them with open arms.

I could go into all sorts of theological depth here, but in truth, we can bury this story under heaps of analysis and miss the main point that all repentance is is going back home to where God abides. All God wants is an intimate relationship with people, people who will retain that taint of sin on them this side of eternity. All He wants is to be with you. His arms are wide open.

Come home.


And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
— Luke 15:11-32

We Are All Wrong–And That’s OK


Recently, the Phil Vischer Podcast had an episode with a Bible expert, and the team talked about the many ways people mishandle the Scriptures and how not to. It was a good show.

More than anything, what God drove home to me from that episode is that all of us, in some way, mangle our use of the Bible. Further, that’s OK.

Well, maybe it’s not OK that the Bible gets used wrongly by people but more that everyone is going to do it at some time. Because people are fallible, broken, wrong, stupid, selfish, and just plain messed up. How then can we expect them to always handle God’s words perfectly?

If you asked me what one piece of wisdom I could contribute to the vast collection of human understanding, I’d offer this: Every person you encounter in your life you see a slice of only. You don’t see their whole life, their joys, their failures. You don’t see what molded them for good or for ill. You just see that slice. And like a core sample from arctic ice, that person’s life consists of multiple layers of events and realizations that can only be interpreted after careful and prolonged study. And truthfully, some of it may never be understood by you because the person himself/herself doesn’t understand it either.

There is no growth in the Christian life without starting from a place of error and moving to a place that is less error-filled. You and I don’t get to decide whether the person before us now is in that error-filled place or not. Sometimes, that person is the one we see in the mirror.

This is why grace exists. Remember grace? It’s meant by God for us to use when we encounter flawed people who are in the process and on the journey. And frankly, that’s every person on earth.

God’s promise to us:

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.
—Jeremiah 18: 1-4

That verse applies to Israel, but what it says about God is what matters.

We are all spoiled vessels. We are all mistaken, wrong, off. And if you catch any one of us in the process of being remolded to the potter’s ideal, we will look ill-formed, ugly even.

But God as potter is faithful to mold us into something beautiful.

So when you come across someone who is wrong or “stupid” or acting ignorantly by your standards, realize that he or she is in that molding stage. It is unfair to judge an artistic work mid-stream, by that slice of life that you see now but which is not the entire creation story. The best thing we can do is to be as faithful as we can to stick around and see how that half-finished vessel will turn out. To the potter at least, it will be gorgeous in His eyes. And ultimately, is not the Author of beauty its best judge?

Suicide and the Church of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey


This weekend, I listened to a podcast from a well-known Christian organization that featured the banter of two notable hosts. The subject was not banter material, though, because it focused on the alarming rise in the last few years of suicide.

The hosts attempted to pin some of the blame on economic realities. This is no doubt true. One demographic to experience an alarming rise in self-harm: men in their 50s. For most men, the early 50s are imagined as peak earning years. When a job loss or income drop happens at this time, the results can be catastrophic, especially since 50 is the new 70 in the eyes of the corporate world.

When the hosts shifted into talking how the Church should be the answer to people who are looking for hope amid economic misfortune, I wondered if they listened to their own show. Why? Because something telling betrayed their response. It’s the reason why economic realities are not the greater portion of the problem of suicide and its rise.

All throughout the podcast, the hosts mentioned their individual, personal brands. They dropped the names of the top schools their kids attended. They talked titles and honors. In doing so, they broadcast a sub-message greater than the Gospel—at least greater in its ubiquity. It’s the message that powers America and drives people to pull the trigger, cut the wrists, and take the pills. It’s the message of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey.

Organ Grinder and MonkeyI’ve never seen an actual organ grinder and his monkey. Italian men with handlebar mustaches come to mind, wearing Tyrolean costumes, while a capuchin or spider monkey gambols about his feet in a cute, little red vest and fez.

The one thing about the monkey: It never stops doing its shtick. Fact is, it can’t. Gotta keep dancing so long as the organ music plays.

I visited the website of a well-known church growth leader, and the one thing that impressed me most about his message was how often he begged people to retweet it, buy it in book form, and share his name with friends, neighbors, the neighbor’s dog, the fleas on the dog, and the mites on the fleas.

Because you gotta keep dancing.

Gotta be number one.

Gotta have name recognition.

Gotta be flogging that personal brand. You.

Gotta get those kids into a name school.

Gotta hold down that title, that chair, that fellowship, that thing that will justify your use of air.

Gotta. Because the organ is grinding, the music is playing, and it’s dance or Antonio finds another monkey.

You have to be “on.” All the time.

Do. There is no do not.

If we think we can go to the Church for an answer on this non-stop performance, we can’t. Because so many churches are enmeshed in trying to stay alive that they do everything they can to enhance their brand, their name recognition, their “product.”

Everywhere you turn, it’s perform or die.

Don’t make a mistake.

Don’t relax.

Don’t stop selling.

ABC—Always Be Closing.

The problem is that the Gospel comes along and it’s 180-degrees in opposition to the lifestyle of the organ grinder’s monkey. The Gospel’s freedom comes in not having to dance unendingly. People are no longer slaves to the music the world pipes. God doesn’t give a rip about your personal brand because you’re a mess and will be until you draw your final breath. Your personal brand is just another load of skubalon. So stop with the charade. Grace.

Why do people despair enough to end their lives? I think too many feel that they can’t let their guard down, can’t stop dancing, can’t stop performing, and just can’t shill for even one second more for themselves or for whomever their organ grinder might be. They simply cannot keep up.

When I listen to a Christian podcast and the message sounds like the organ grinder’s music, I don’t wonder why people are not in the seats on Sunday. Because there’s no relief. If the Church can’t tell people they can stop being an organ grinder’s monkey—and give them actual help to cease the tarantella—then no one will. Freedom in Christ will remain high concept and low reality.

We can talk all we want as a Church about grace, but until we stop with the performance mentality, we’ll sit back and watch the suicides pile up and blame them on everyone and everything EXCEPT the real cause.

We took a cruel world and fed into it a bunch of performance lies that make it even crueler. It’s time, Church, to help people throw off their monkeydom and embrace the freedom that comes from being identified by more than our performance.