“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” (Luke 3:9 ESV)

“Godly sorrow produces repentance, not to be regretted, but the sorry of the world produces death.” (II Corinthians 7:10 ESV)

Why is apologizing, candidly and clearly, so hard to do? Let’s think about this together. 

A friend of mine used to say, only half-joking, that the three most difficult words to pronounce in the English language are these: “I was wrong.” 

I laughed the first time I heard it and I’ve repeated it many times through the years. Not once has anyone disagreed, as far as I know. (And if I’m wrong about that, well, I guess I’ll just have to say it: “I was wrong!”) But all kidding aside, the logic of this seems overwhelmingly clear.

None of us enjoys apologizing.

unwillingness to repent

It goes against our grain. And so often, it’s that stubborn unwillingness to simply step back and recognize our own errors that hinders relationships from flourishing.  Ironically, the people for whom forgiveness should flow most freely may twist themselves into pretzel-shapes trying to avoid acknowledging the need for it!  

To quote the 1st century apostle, James, from a similar context: “These things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10b ESV) 

Contradictions between what a believer should do and what he or she actually does is the topic of James chapter 3, especially in the area of speech. Error is a regular facet of human communication, as James explains in the first verse of the same chapter. Why doesn’t that automatically produce humility in us?  

Clearly, it’s because our errors are never as glaring as the errors of others, in our own eyes. We view our faults through dark sunglasses while examining a rival, a relative or a co-worker’s faults with a magnifying glass. 

And that’s what makes real repentance so crucial for the adventure of growing wiser and stronger in all the vital relationships of life. Put simply, to “repent” is to decide to change our mind, will and attitude.  

Apart from God’s grace, of course, no human can ever truly “repent.”

And that’s how our deepest needs are linked directly to the purpose of the Gospel. It’s good news for each of us precisely at the point where sin has wrecked us and left us “totaled”.  

The theme of repentance rings through the Gospels as a clear, compelling call to each of us. A sharpened axe swiftly applied to the roots of a dead tree is the picture chosen by John the Baptist as he prepared the hearts of people to meet the true Life-giver. 

As crowds streamed from villages across Judea to hear the baptizer’s voice cry out from the midst of the Jordan river, they were summoned to a total turning away from sin. 

Teshuva” is the Hebrew word for this radical act of rescue from the snare of the self-life.  The dual meaning of “teshuva” anchored early followers of Jesus in a truth they had learned from listening to John’s fiery sermons.  

It’s first of all, a “returning” to the true and living God. In order to return our hearts wholly to Him, we must “repent”. That is, a decision inside to reject sin’s grip on our souls can only occur when our eyes are focused on the Life-giver.  

Tracing the golden thread of this truth in the Bible leads to a simple conclusion that can powerfully enrich every relationship in your life in 2019. And here it is:

Repentance is only real when it’s total. 

There’s a crazy story Chuck Swindoll used to tell about a man in the 1960’s who got way behind on his taxes. This, of course, was in the days when all income tax returns were filed by snail mail. This guy included a “To whom it may concern” note with his amended tax form. After the intro line, it read, “Enclosed you will find a check for $150. I cheated on my income tax return last year and I haven’t been able to sleep ever since. Thank you for accepting this late payment. If I still have trouble sleeping, I’ll send you the rest.”* 

As weird as that sounds, it’s no more ridiculous than the lengths many of us may go through to avoid full repentance. Unfortunately, half-measures don’t cut it with God.  

It’s hazardous to be tight-lipped when God’s Word tells us to “take words with you and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2 ESV) 

Hosea’s focus on words gives us a key for “laying the axe to the root of the tree”. It’s taking “teshuva” to your heart completely and quickly. Bringing our “words” to God is the starting point in both Hosea’s case and in the preaching of John the Baptist.  

Confession is the common element in Hosea 14:2 and Matthew 3:6.

Words play a vital role in conditioning the heart to respond to God. 

While it’s true that words are useless without action, it’s also a biblical fact that there is no real repentance without words.  

Spiritual growth is not simply a matter of our own internal happiness. It’s also crucial for healthy relationships, which in turn spill over into the atmosphere of church, home, office, sports fields, community organizations and social media. 

When we can quickly say “I was wrong” and count fully on the wonderful forgiveness and cleansing of Jesus, there are immediate benefits in all our closest relationships.  

And what a contrast this kind of candor can bring when so many lies seem to swirl in a culture of blame-shifting and half-hearted apologizing.  

Back in 2004, an editor at U.S. News and World Report examined the way apologizing is often trotted out half-heartedly when celebrities engage in damage control. Observing first that “more and more people [today] demand apologies, while fewer and fewer are willing to give them”, John Leo listed several slippery apologies people in power use to try to squirm out of a bind. Examples include a public official saying, “If you took offense at anything I said, please accept my apology.”  

After a famous athlete lost his temper in a contentious press conference, he explained: “I responded as I saw fit. In the process, things that I said may have offended members of the audience. To these people I offer my apologies.” Leo called it his “I-gotta-be-me” excuse. 

The lieutenant governor of a New England state had assigned baby-sitting tasks to certain state employees. Asked to explain her actions, she said, “I won’t apologize for trying to be a good mother.” Leo tagged that one “the subject-changing, head-scratching non-apology.” 

And but not least is the “It happened non-apology,” uttered reluctantly by a celebrity caught in a crime who said “I’m sure I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty. Let’s leave it at this: I’m sorry it happened and I’m sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt. Let’s move on.” 

Each of these and other “bogus apologies” illustrate what the Bible clearly shows. Human hearts hold hazardous materials that ooze out of the pores of our skin. We’re hard-wired for dodging uncomfortable facts about ourselves.  

This is exactly where the difference in “worldly sorrow” and “godly sorrow” lies. In worldly sorrow, regrets are real, but the errors get buried in excuses or lies. The regret is regrettable but there is no power for change. Worldly regret is only half-way there. 

In Christ, with His redeeming blood cleansing hazards from the heart, repenting becomes a rescue operation! His resurrection power guarantees freedom from sin’s grip. Errors can be freely confessed. Apologies can be factual and direct. Life takes wing anew when God’s grace breaks through. 

A path forward for anyone struggling with regret is teshuva!  

Return to God. Bring words with you. Say it straight. Hold nothing back. Total truth. “Repenting” is actually very refreshing. And best of all, it works! 

May “teshuva” encourage your heart and enrich your relationships in 2019.  

In His love,
Pastor Joe 

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