The New Testament word for “repent” means to turn around—we turn away from sin and toward God. After adopting a correct view of God and revising false beliefs, step three in the process we are outlining is to repent of your sinful habit.
Over the years, I (Henry) have defined a five-part process of repentance that we can use when we are dealing with a habitual sin we are prepared to turn away from. Each of the parts of the process can be summarized in a particular prayer offered to God. The five prayers are progressively more difficult to say and to mean, but each is a vital part of repentance.¹
This five-part process dovetails neatly with Bill’s concept of “spiritual breathing.” As you are reading about the five prayers, notice how the first three correspond to exhaling guilt, while the remaining two correspond to inhaling grace. (See “Spiritual Breathing.”)
Prayer 1: “God, I am wrong.”
Repentance begins with acknowledging before God that we have willfully violated His holy standards. We must understand what we have done and we must admit it to God.
The little word “I” that begins this prayer is more important than its size might lead one to expect.
Some of us might be too quick to feel guilty or to feel more guilty than we deserve. Many others of us, however, have a tendency to look around for someone else to shift our blame onto. Blame shifting will never do. Others may be at fault too, but we have to admit our own part in the wrongdoing. We pray, “I am wrong.”
The word “wrong” is important too. What we are talking about is sin. If we have broken the law of God, it is not an “error in judgment,” a “peccadillo,” or a “misdemeanor.” We stand in the position of a wrongdoer before God.
Without knowing ourselves as sinners, we either will not see a need to repent or else any supposed “repentance” of ours will be a selfish attempt to manipulate God. It is not enough to say, “I messed up” or “I lost my head”; we have to say, “I am wrong.”
The apostle John implied the importance of acknowledging our wrongdoing when he wrote, “If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that His word has no place in our hearts” (1 John 1:10).
Prayer 2: “God, I am sorry.”
Admitting wrongdoing (the first prayer) is no easy thing. Yet there are any number of reasons why someone might admit to doing wrong without really being sorry for it. A person might mean to go back to wrongdoing as soon as it is convenient—that is not being sorry. Or a person might be sorry for getting caught but not be sorry for the sin itself. Or someone might be sorry about hurting other people but have no sense of having grieved God.
A lack of sorrow over one’s sin is revealed when we begin to make excuses. However, contrary to excuses, repentance requires us to feel truly sorry for what we have done and to say so to God.
We live in a society that places a high value on feeling good as much as possible. But when we have sinned, it is appropriate to meditate on how we have hurt ourselves, other people, and God by what we have done. In other words, that is the time to let ourselves feel the bad feelings for a while. As the apostle James urged his readers, “Let there be tears for the wrong things you have done. Let there be sorrow and gloom and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy” (James 4:9).
Did you know that feeling remorse for sin is a lot like grieving a loved one’s death? We see this, for instance, in one of Jesus’s parables when a repentant tax collector “beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’ ” (Luke 18:13). Beating one’s chest was an extraordinary sign of mourning in Hebrew culture. The only other time it is mentioned in the New Testament is when Jesus’s friends “beat their breasts” at His death (Luke 23:48, NIV). Just so deep should be our grief over the way we have let down God with our sin.
When we sense the true gravity of what we have done, we are ready not just to admit our sin but also to tell God we are sorry—and mean it. Certainly we do not want to overdo our sorrow over sin, groveling in it and refusing to get past it; nevertheless, feeling remorse is an important stage to pass through. This sort of sorrow over our sin is what Paul was referring to when he said, “God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation. We will never regret that kind of sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
¹For more on the five prayers of repentance, see Henry R. Brandt and Kerry L. Skinner, The Heart of the Problem (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), pp. 73–83; Henry R. Brandt and Kerry L. Skinner, The Word for the Wise: Making Scripture the Heart of Your Counseling Ministry (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), pp. 102–106.