Around the time Jesus went about calling the Pharisees a bunch of hypocrites, two bad things happened. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who would soon give orders to put Jesus to death, slaughtered a bunch of Galileans. And a rickety old tower in Jerusalem fell down crushing a few passers-by to death. Small time stuff compared to what goes on these days but in those days this was big news.
Some people brought this big news to Jesus. They probably wanted to know why God does such things. I'm not sure what they expected Jesus to say. Perhaps they thought he would commiserate. Say how sorry he was that this happened, but that was life, you know. C'est la vie. Or perhaps make excuses. Tell them that God might have got distracted watching all those sparrows fly up and down. Or got too busy counting the hairs on somebody's head. But He would have a word with His Father as soon as He could and see if He could get Him to pay more attention to what was happening down here.
Nope! This is what Jesus told them, and I quote ad verbatim: "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." If you really want to get the full blast of this warning, contemporize it: think about the events that took place in America on September 11 or the recent Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. Do you think the victims were worse sinners than any of us are? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish!
Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance. "Repent," he said, "For the kingdom of heaven is near." It was a call repeated right through Scripture, both by Jesus and his apostles, showing us how important repentance is in salvation. Which leads us to the question: what is repentance? Most of us believe that repentance is being sorry. Not quite. Repentance involves abject remorse and contrition for one's sins against God and a strong desire not only to change direction, but to change mind and heart as well. Without this desire to change, the sorrow is meaningless.
Consider a man given to violence who beats up his wife whenever he gets drunk. When he sobers up the next morning he is filled with remorse, but his apology to his wife has no meaning unless he takes the measures necessary to stop the violence from repeating. Or a woman in the middle of an adulterous affair who tells her husband that she is sorry for what she is doing. There is no meaning to her apology unless she puts an end to it, with the determination to never engage in anything like it again. Only a man or woman filled with true sorrow—a godly sorrow—will take the required steps to do so. As Paul wrote so wisely in his second letter to the Corinthians, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."
Peter and Judas make good studies in the two types of sorrow. Both were disciples of Christ. Both were loved by him. Both learned from him. And both betrayed Him. One betrayed him out of cowardice, because his courage failed him at the time he needed it most; the other betrayed him out of greed. Both regretted their mistake. But while Peter turned back towards God in humble contrition, weeping and begging for forgiveness, Judas believed his sin was beyond redemption and hanged himself. Peter's was a godly sorrow. Judas's was a worldly sorrow, one that we see all too often. Most of the time the sorrow is in being caught!
Godly sorrow is what got me into the School of the Holy Spirit, where my education in being a child of God began. I was an atheist most of my life, and like many people who don't believe in God, I was utterly amoral. Right or wrong depended more on expediency, than on any moral principles I had. Needless to say, most of what I did was very wrong in the sight of God, but I realized this only after my conversion, when my eyes opened to the truth. I found myself horrified by the countless things I had done to hurt God, and I swore that I would never ever do anything to cause him pain again. I then proceeded to take my old life apart, systematically burning, smashing and otherwise voiding myself of anything that I felt would be an offence to God, determined to be a child He would henceforth be proud of.
God must have seen something in that determination because shortly thereafter He gave me a powerful anointing of His Spirit to empower the changes that I wanted so much to take place. The Spirit took me through the Schools of Prayer, Love, Forgiveness, Purification and Faith—among others—and taught me many things. But there were more lessons to be learned in the School of Repentance itself, one of which was that repentance wasn't a one-off thing that you did once and then forgot about. It is something that occurs every time you encounter sin in your life. And you will encounter much. As you grow in the Spirit you will discover things that you might not have previously considered sinful, and you will grieve about them, as determined to put an end to them as to anything you put an end to before. This is, admittedly, easier said than done.
Those who have been following me in my progress through the School of the Holy Spirit will know that I had a volatile temper. It didn't take too much to trigger it off and when I got angry I lost all ability to reason. My tantrums rarely lasted beyond a few seconds but it was still long enough to wreck havoc. It took many painful months during which I prayed, fasted and engaged in every possible exercise to control my temper before I finally managed to rein it in -- for a while.
Six months passed in relative calm before I suddenly exploded one evening. Just a few moments earlier I had spoken to a group of people on how one of the qualities of love was being slow to anger. The moment my anger was spent I felt the familiar sense of shame creep in, as well as a certain element of despair: would I ever get a hold of my temper? There was no consolation in the knowledge that I had kept it under control for half a year. I made a silent promise to myself that the next time I blew a fuse, the penance would be great.
It took another six months before that happened. I promptly isolated myself in my prayer room for an entire week, forsaking the TV, newspaper, telephone, friends, computer, Internet (I think this was the hardest!), and just about everything else with the exception of my Bible. When I left the room it was with another silent promise that if I were ever to lose my temper again, I would spend a week in isolation again, only this time it would be in the desert. I have not got angry since, and I believe God had a lot more to do with this than concern about how I would survive a week in the desert; I had spent a good deal of that week in prayer!
The point of sharing this story is not to boast, but to let you know that changing your nature is a painstaking process that requires a lot of effort and courage and you have to be prepared to exercise both. It doesn't do, for instance, for the man with the drinking problem we had spoken about earlier to say that drinking is a weakness he has, and for him to leave it at that. He has to do whatever he can to put an end to his drinking: get himself admitted to a rehab center, cut off all his drinking buddies even if he has known them since grade school, dismantle his bar, smash his bottles, and/or whatever else it takes!
God understands weaknesses, but he does not condone the sins they result in. He will help you overcome your weaknesses if he sees you making determined efforts to shake off all the chains binding you; chains that you have wrapped around yourself over years of self indulgent behavior. But He won't buy your attempts at justifying your actions by claiming "weakness", which is what a lot of us tend to do. Nor will He buy the line that no effort on your part is required as change is possible only by His grace. He wants to see the desire in your heart first.
These are some of the very hard lessons that the Spirit teaches you in this School, but if you are resolute—and you have to be because sinning is not an option you have at all—He will help you learn them. One of the methods He uses is making you understand the horrific consequences that your sins result in; the great damage that they cause both you and the world around you. Please see The Consequences of Sin for more.
May the Spirit be with you.