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Repentance vs. Ritual

The idea of repentance – turning away from evil, and towards good – is common in the Bible.  We deal with similar concepts regularly:

  • When we find ourselves on the wrong road, going in the wrong direction, we understand that we’ll need to turn around to get where we want to go.  (No comments from wives about their husbands, here…especially my own!)
  • We’d like for those caught in wrongdoing to reform and stop their lives of crime.
  • Parents discipline their children, in order to correct bad behavior before it has more significant effects.
  • We expect (and occasionally receive) an apology – sometimes including reparations – from companies or leaders who make egregious mistakes.  When the responses are tepid or unconvincing, we are left wanting more.

However, there is true repentance and there is lip service.  The prophet Joel differentiated the two:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
Joel 2:12‭-‬13 NASB

In those days, tearing one’s garments was a sign of distress.  After all, if you only had a few changes of clothes (or maybe just one), it would have to be a pretty big deal to tear something you were wearing.  I suppose that the king could afford a big wardrobe, but his torn royal robes would still send a message to his people.

However, even something this significant (destroying one’s belongings) could just be a front – a façade.  Like the friend who promises to never lie to us again (after continuing to do so and break that promise time and again), an outward showing of repentance isn’t meaningful if it is not accompanied by a change of heart and a change of behavior.

While we may connect the illustration of a “broken heart” with the sadness associated with being dumped (or let down) by someone we cared about, there is also the brokenness of contrition – of being truly sorry for the bad things we have done.  This is not feeling bad about what may have been done to us; instead, it is feeling bad about what we have done to others.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
Psalms 51:17 NASB

In the earlier passage from Joel, God calls the people to “rend” (tear) their hearts, instead of their clothes.  If our attitude changes, we may choose to show signs of the sorrow we feel about our bad choices; however, even if we don’t, we should begin to behave differently – working to truly rid our lives of the evil that we now regret.

I don’t wish for you a broken heart with regards to relationships with other people, but I do hope that you will be internally sorry for your mistakes, and work to fix them (just as I also need to do the same with my own bad choices and habits).  It takes God’s help to fully get there, but this path is ultimately better than just putting on a show.


See also:


Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.

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