Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday: When You Want the Reward Without Any Work

As a kid, I offered my confession to a priest about once every month or so. I’d step into the dim confessional, draw the red velvet curtain behind me, kneel in front of the screen and list my sins to the shadowy figure obscured behind the window. My sins were always the same: disobeying my parents; gossiping with my friends; fighting with my sister; and telling small lies.

When I had listed my sins and recited the Act of Contrition, the priest blessed me and then sent me on my way with my penance, which, if I recall correctly, was always the same, too: two “Our Fathers” and three “Hail Marys.” While I waited for my mother and sister to finish their confessions, I knelt in the pew and completed my penance. It was all done in about 15 minutes flat.

When I read yesterday’s lesson from Luke about the barren fig tree, I admit, I flinched a little.  It reminded me of my days of penance on the cushioned kneeler, my forehead resting on my hands as I leaned on the wooden pew.

Jesus says it twice, just to make sure we get it, and he doesn’t soften his words:

“You will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.” (Luke 13:3)

Let’s be honest – no one loves to hear the word “repent.” No one likes to come face-to-face with the stern, reprimanding side of God. No one likes to be reminded that our time is limited, that we don’t have forever to come clean with God. Frankly, I prefer the cozier Jesus — the one who beckons the children into his arms, over the one who warns that I’ll perish unless I repent.

As much as I may not have wanted to hear yesterday’s message, my pastor helped me understand why repentance is important. Confession, he told us, is only part one of the equation. Confession — being honest about our sins and shortcomings with ourselves and with God — is necessary and good, but it’s only the first step. Repentance — actually changing our behavior and turning back to God — is harder.

Repentance is work.

When I think back to my days of the confessional and penance, I can see what Pastor Greg means. When I was kid, I always wondered where I went wrong, because inevitably, I’d leave the church after confession with my clean, unblemished soul, only to commit the same old sins an hour or a day or a week later. The problem, I realize now, is that I viewed confession and penance as a magic bullet: list my sins to the priest, utter five prayers on the kneeler and voila…cured.

I wanted the reward without any work.

I confessed, and then I assumed God would do the rest.

It’s true, God bestows the gift of grace on each of us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a part to play. That doesn’t mean we skate through life, banking on the grace card until we sail into Heaven. Repentance is work because it requires change — a return to God, not just in our words, but in our hearts.

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  1. says

    Hi Michelle! In our Church, we are taught to earnestly confess and repent of our sins every time we come before the Lord to praise, worship and bring our petitions, and that’s morning and evening :D. Have a wonderful week!

    • Michelle DeRusha says

      We pray a confessional prayer before we take communion at church, but I’ve truly never thought about how that might differ from actual repentance. Good point, Rina!

  2. says

    “That doesn’t mean we skate through life, banking on the grace card until we sail into Heaven. Repentance is work because it requires change — a return to God, not just in our words, but in our hearts.” === Asking Him to help me do the work. Thanks for this reminder.

  3. says

    Oh, Michelle:
    As disconnected as the confessional can be from real repentance, I am absolutely convinced that repentance is sorely negected in many of our faith lives, and that it is the one absolute avenue that takes us directly into the presence of God. Repentance not only reveals sins, but it also exposes gaps in our faith. Every sin pattern we perpetuate originates in a place where we do not sufficiently believe God’s promises. If we can get to the bottom of these, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we obey the near-impossible command we are give to be holy. Repentance, though, is the key to it all. God can rescue without it, but He cannot forgive.

  4. Jillie says

    There you go again, Michelle….A shot, straight from the hip! Love your Monday posts! Confess….but repent as well. This is key! God’s grace is a gift, but it was never a cheap gift. It cost Christ everything! And it must cost us something too—the WORK of repentance.

  5. says

    {Melinda} Yes, repentence requires not only humility, but a CHOICE to change. Change — even good change — is difficult and uncomfortable. I guess this is what the Bible means what it talks of us “working out our faith with fear and trembling.”

    • Michelle DeRusha says

      Oh yes, I like that, Melinda – working out our faith with fear and trembling. Thank you for added new depth to those verses this morning.

  6. says

    Me too – the same old sin just an hour or a week later! Glad I’m not the only one. Though I love how you get right to the heart of the matter here: change takes work. Yes, that is what I need to work on, too. Thank you.

  7. says

    Yes, repentance is hard work. Yesterday our message in church was about forgiveness. It’s part of a series called “Fearless Generosity.” The pastor talked about the difficult work of repentance – but he also talked about the very difficult work of offering forgiveness to another. I suppose it all boils down to an accurate view of Jesus and what He did for us on that Cross. When I fully grasp that, it usually sends me to my knees in a repentant change of heart, and the desire to free others with forgiveness, too.


    • Michelle DeRusha says

      We are reading the book “Final Words” by Adam Hamilton as part of my church’s small group study this Lent, and we talked at great length about Jesus’ example of forgiveness from the cross this week. So yes, I hear what you are saying, Sharon. Another revelation I experienced this week when I thought about Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” was that he was not only speaking to the Romans who crucified him, he is speaking to me, today, right now.

  8. says

    I too remember being a child in confession. Without inviting The Holy Spirit to search my heart and then truly repenting, I sometimes didn’t even know what to confess, because I’d already said the same things and prayed the same prayers.

    Later, when I actually read the New Testament, and understood what John the Baptist was actually calling me to do, and that only by JESUS’ Work on the cross was I cleansed, suddenly I had so much to confess and repent…and still do.

  9. says

    As the preacher said tonight in our missions conference — just do it! We are saved by grace through faith, but faith without works is dead. True repentance, or actually turning from our sins, is possible only through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thanks for the great post & for hosting, & God bless!

  10. says

    So true…Grace saves us, and grace enables us to repent even as we must change old ways of thinking and acting…if we truly repented on the inside, it should show on the outside…even if we sometimes fall, we get back up…such a mystery, yes? Thanks, Michelle :)

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