Four Steps Toward Joy in Repentance
There is a kind of joy in repentance. I say “a kind of” because repentance is also arduous, humbling, exacting. Think of Jean Valjean writhing in agony during his soliloquy: “I feel my shame inside me like a knife!” Or Eustace Clarence Scrubb being “un-dragoned” by Aslan: “it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”
Nonetheless, there is also joy in repentance. In repentance, we pray like David:
“Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” (Psalm 51:8)
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (Psalm 51:12)
It can seem strange that repentance can produce both grief and joy — that David’s bones can be “crushed” and yet “rejoice.” But this is consistent with the flavor of the gospel, which achieves life through death, joy through suffering, good through evil. We might say that repentance is to joy what Good Friday is to Easter — that necessary path of agonizing, self-abasing death by which alone we emerge into light and freedom beyond what we could have ever imagined.
How can we seek joy in the midst of bone-crushing repentance? Here are four (not necessarily chronological) steps.
1. Fully Acknowledge the Weight of Your Sin.
Before David asks for joy in Psalm 51:8 and 51:12, he acknowledges the weight of his sin: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4). The joy of repentance flows directly out of its grief; there is no path to Sunday morning except through Friday afternoon.
Thus in repentance, we must fully acknowledge the weight of our sin; we must own the staggering cost that held Christ on that cross; we must face squarely, without excuse or evasion, the depths of our guilt before a holy God.
This means, first, that we measure our sins by God, rather than mere human factors — just as David prays, “against you only have I sinned,” even though he is repenting of sins more directly committed against Bathsheba and Uriah. And it means, second, that we agree with God’s judgment against our sin, and even join him in it — just as David prays, “you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” It might seem strange to think that joy can come from such a humbling, bone-crushing experience. But in reality, it is the only path to true joy. There is no Psalm 51:8 rejoicing without a prior Psalm 51:4 acknowledgement.
2. Boldly Claim the Promises of Grace.
In the gospel, the sins we repent of are already forgiven before we even repent. We might still have to bear the consequences of our sins for a time, and perhaps even the Lord’s gracious discipline. But because of the justifying blood of Christ, our status in the eyes of heaven never waxes and wanes with the ups and downs of our sanctification. When Christ comes into our lives, we are fully, eternally, and unchangeably forgiven. This enables us to repent with a kind of glad abandon. Repentance is like saying you’re sorry to a friend after he has already run to you, embraced you, kissed you, and clung to you. There is nothing to hide, and nothing to fear.
The gospel also enables us to lay hold of God’s promises for forgiveness and change while we are repenting. David’s prayer, “let me hear joy and gladness” in Psalm 51:8 is of one piece with his prayer, “wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” in Psalm 51:7.
Repentance is like a medicine with a bitter taste that nonetheless heals and nourishes and even consoles in our stomach. If we know the medicine will work, we don’t so much mind the bitter taste. In the gospel, the medicine works.
3. Involve Other People as Appropriate.
Repentance is first and foremost a vertical matter coram Deo (before the face of God). But sincere repentance cannot help but spill out onto the horizontal plane as well. James 5:16 envisions one way it could happen: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
When we repent before others — in an appropriate context, and in a non-showy way — James says it brings healing. It frees us from our pride, it edifies others, and it puts the power of the gospel on public display.
If you are battling a habitual sin and you have not held yourself accountable in any way, be honest with yourself: You might feel badly about your sin, but you are not actually repenting of it. Repentance is more than remorse — it means change.
Raise the stake in your repentance by involving others. Risk the bone-crushing humiliation of total honesty. It may be your path to freedom and joy.
4. Meditate on Christ’s Intercession for You.
Christ’s heavenly intercession does not atone for our sin, but it applies the benefits of his once-for-all atonement to us in our real-time struggles. As the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock put it: “it is upon every sin he doth discharge this office, and by his interposition procures our pardon thousands of times, and preserves us from coming short of the full fruits of reconciliation at first obtained by him.”
Christ’s intercession is an incredible help to finding joy in repentance. We all know what it is like to wallow in the guilt and shame of our sin, wondering if God has run out of patience. Micah 7:8–9 seems to envision this kind of post-sin wallowing, and how Christ’s intercession functions as its answer: “when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.”
When you are sitting in the darkness, all your bones crushed by the weight of sin and guilt, remember this: He is praying for you. With all the compassion of a father’s heart for a wayward prodigal, and with all the merits and rights of one who has paid the full penalty on your behalf, he is entertaining your case before the Father. It’s a staggering thought that the very one against whom you have sinned will plead your cause.
Such an incredible love changes the tone of our repentance. It gives us gladness amidst the sorrow. It shines a light when we are sitting in the darkness. And it gives us hope that our broken bones can sing again.