I have wept more authentically over my sin when kissed by the sunshine of God’s kindness than when threatened with his wrath. Once, when I had spoken harshly to my wife, I walked out of the kitchen into the garage and decided to take the garbage to the street for pickup. As I walked out of the garage, the beauty of the spring day was overwhelming. Blue sky. Cool breeze. Warm sun on my skin. It was as if God stooped down and kissed me. The effect was deep remorse for how I had treated Noël.
I think the threat of God’s wrath is essential for that experience to be real and significant. The kiss of warm sunlight was overwhelming, precisely because there is such a thing as being struck by lightning, and that is exactly what I deserved. Without the reality of justice and wrath, that kiss would have been trivial.
But, in fact, it was heart-breaking.
Is this not what Peter experienced in Luke 5? They had fished all night and caught nothing. But Jesus said to put out in the deep and let down the nets. Peter protested, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” But he relented and obeyed (Luke 5:5). When both boats were filled with fish — that is, when Christ had kissed Peter with kindness, in spite of his doubts — Peter fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
Authentic contrition overwhelmed Peter in the presence of omnipotent kindness.
David Brainerd, preaching to the Native Americans, saw the same thing. He said, “It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the gospel, when there was not a word of terror spoken to them” (Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. by Norman Pettit, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 7, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 307).
What can we learn from these three experiences? Three things.
Authentic tears of true contrition for sin flow from loving holiness, not from fearing the consequences of not having it.
To put it another way, if your tears over not having something are going to honor what you don’t have, then you must really want it, love it, not just want to escape the consequences of not having it. You must love what you lack, if the tears for lacking it are to show its value.
You must love what you lack, if the tears for lacking it are to show its value.
This means that true, God-honoring contrition must be preceded by falling in love with God. Weeping in a way that honors God’s holiness must be preceded by falling in love with his holiness. Otherwise your tears would not be owing to lacking what you love, but only owing to fearing God’s wrath.
Notice how strange this seems at first: God and his way of holiness must become your treasure — your joy — before you can weep over not having this holiness. To put it most paradoxically, you must know God and his holiness as your joy before their absence can be your sorrow. Joy in God is the ground of godly sorrow over sin. You must fall in love with God before estrangement from God truly hurts.
It is possible to weep over not having holiness **not* because you love holiness, but because you fear the consequences of not having it.*
Many a criminal will weep when his sentence is read, not because he has come to love righteousness, but because his freedom to do more unrighteousness is being taken away, and because there will be pain. To cry over the punishment one is about to receive for wrongdoing is no sign of hating wrong, but only hating pain. That kind of weeping is not true gospel contrition or repentance. And it does not lead to Christian obedience.
To know this is crucial in all counseling and preaching. Tears often abound where there is no contrition. The counselor must be discerning. Compassion for tears that does not discern the absence of love for holiness and submission to Christ will lead to poor counsel, premature comfort, and superficial healing.
Preaching and counseling that aim to produce true gospel contrition must study to make God and his holiness look alluringly attractive so that, by the touch of the Holy Spirit, people will come to love the holiness of God so much that they feel remorse over falling short of it.
The kind of preaching and counseling that produces broken-heartedness for sin will, to be sure, paint the backdrop of God’s justice and wrath clearly. But they will realize that tears of contrition for not having holiness come from the awakening of joy in the God of holiness. The burden of our preaching and counseling, therefore, will be the prayer-soaked effort to present God in Christ as all-glorious and all-satisfying. For all God-honoring sorrow is rooted in God-honoring joy.