Repentance is the plow that makes possible powerful personal growth.

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community. People bring us things from their gardens. I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to Halifax County. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe. I love the way those fresh from the garden things taste!

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. We often ate of its fruit. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs to grow – the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It busts up the clotted dirt. It digs deep down and prepares the ground for everything that comes later. Without the plow there is no garden. The plow makes the growth possible. The plow is the beginning of powerful things in the life of the garden.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life. It is called repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts. It breaks up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the word of God to work deep down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in ‘putting off the old life’ and ‘putting on the new’. Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, chapter one.

Repentance Reviews the Offense
Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins…we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all the plow of repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment, I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The problem for us is that the concept of personal responsibility, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance gets specific
Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you.” He said. We might say it this way: ‘God I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.’ Corruption is a heart hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.
Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. “We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. ‘Any one, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.’ James 4:17.
Finally, Nehemiah even confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But consider what the late Dr. Karl Menninger said in his book, “Whatever Became of Sin?”
“If a dozen people are in a lifeboat and one of them discovers a leak near where he is sitting, is there any doubt as to his responsibility? Not for having made the hole, or for finding it, but for attempting to repair it! To ignore it or to keep silent about it is almost equivalent to having made it!

Thus even in group situations and group actions, there is a degree of personal responsibility, either for doing or for not doing—or for declaring a position about it. The word “sin” involves these considerations, and upon this I base the usefulness of a revival of the concept, if not the word, sin.”

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray, as a story from the life of Norman Vincent Peale illustrates.

In his book Why Prayers Are Unanswered, John Lavender reported of Peale:
“When Peale was a boy, he found a big, black cigar, slipped into an alley, and lit up. It didn’t taste good, but it made him feel very grown up … until he saw his father coming. Quickly he put the cigar behind his back and tried to be casual.
Desperate to divert his father’s attention, Norman pointed to a billboard advertising the circus. “Can I go, Dad? Please, let’s go when it comes to town.” His father’s reply taught Norman a lesson he never forgot. “Son,” he answered quietly but firmly, “never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience.”

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away, and I’m no gardener. But I did run in to Mr. Rice recently, the man with the tractor and plow. He told me something sad. “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are less than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.


I was a 25-year-old seminary student trying to sort through the meaning of ministry and leadership in a world without heroes. He was a 65-year-old retired U.S. Army Colonel and decorated combat veteran who had built harbors and airstrips from Normandy to Berlin in WWII, then roads and bridges across Korea, often under heavy fire, and twice wounded in the efforts. He had also led an international security agency, and served as police chief in his hometown before taking up the job of construction superintendent where we met.

By the time I met Marc Walters on that job site in Memphis he had survived multiple surgeries which had weakened his once powerful body. He operated out of an old RV that doubled as his home on the hotel project we were building. I was looking for mentors and he was John Wayne writ large, a tangible hero and nothing at all like the well-scrubbed theologians I was studying under at the time. Watching him handle the rough men on that job was an education no seminary could provide.

I was his gofer, aide de camp if you like. Every time we met, over every cup of java, I asked questions, and then just listened; questions about men, about values, about leadership under pressure. As winter gave way to spring, he shared his stories and I worked hard to earn his respect. For he and his wife had been spurned by their small town church because of her alcoholism. And though he was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he had not been to church in many years.

I knew that my friend’s health was failing and one morning, as we finished our coffee, he got quiet, lit his pipe, and just looked at me for a moment. “I’ve told my family I may not make it through this next surgery,” he said. “And if I don’t, I’ve told them I want you to do my funeral. You’re an honorable young man and I’m proud to know you.”

It was at once the greatest compliment I’d ever received, and the moment I had been praying about for months, providing the opportunity to talk about his spiritual life and his eternity. God gave us his grace that morning.

My friend survived. Because of our friendship I think some reconciliation took place in his life and family, for which I was grateful. And I learned three very powerful things. First, men who have seen combat; where life is pared down to essential absolutes, know things that cannot be taught in a classroom. Second, there is great value in listening to an older man tell his tale without hastening judgment on his life. Finally, the best ministry is not the kind that comes from pulpits, but the truth that flows between friends over a cup-a-joe in the quiet spaces.


i dragged you

I don’t have much patience for sentimental Christianity. You know what I’m talking about: the religious bookstore stuff of kitschy little trinkets with catchy sayings that don’t stand up in the real world struggle against the “spiritual forces of wickedness.”

Chad Walsh, in his book, Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century, says, “Millions of Christians live in a sentimental haze of vague piety, with soft organ music trembling in the lovely light from stained-glass windows. Their religion is a pleasant thing of emotional quiver, divorced from the intellect, divorced from the will, and demanding little except lip service to a few harmless platitudes.”

I agree with Walsh. I doubt the devil works very hard to keep people away from that kind of church. The spirituality that Jesus has for us is robust, but it can be brutal to a sentimental soul. Paul said we fight “spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.” Peter called the devil a ‘roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.’ We can expect following Jesus to be difficult.

What shape do those difficulties take? All kinds, some obviously evil, some less so, but none of them easy or sweet: boardroom intrigues and back alley deals that blow up careers, lawsuits that threaten a lifetime of savings and work because you took a stand for conscience, children killed in the bloom of youth, betrayal with a kiss from a friend.

These and many other kinds of evil in the world – the murders, the rapes, child molestation, and political oppression – cannot all be accounted for with psychosocial explanations. Evil is transnational, trans-economic, trans-educational, and trans-cultural. Race does not explain it. Nationality does not account for it. Wealth and poverty alike are fertile grounds for it. It reigns among the elite and the illiterate. It is found in the most sophisticated as well as the most common circles. Supernatural evil is present and real in the world. His name is Satan and he has been “a murderer from the beginning.”

Jesus warned us of him. The very first stage of his public ministry was a step into the arena of mortal combat with personal evil. He was tested, tried, in a forty day brawl with a vicious, subtle and deadly enemy whom he called ‘the devil’. Jesus eventually died fighting him. We are foolish to believe that our experience will be any different from his.

But as you know, the story doesn’t end there. Our savior, our leader, our glorious captain and king did not stay dead. No and neither shall we if we walk with him.

So allow me to offer a bit of black coffee theology; straight up spiritual advice for those days when we are not being carried, but dragged kicking and screaming into a desperately unwanted spiritual experience. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. ”

Jesus hasn’t left, hasn’t abandoned you. “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,” he said, and he meant it. He is here, he is present, he cares, and he sustains. More than that, he is coming again in justice and judgment and when he comes, you will share his glory. So stand up, brush the sand out of your clothes, ignore the terror and tumult of the waves, fix your eyes on Jesus, and walk. Take the next step, and the next one after that, and the next one after that, your hand firmly gripped around his and he will lead you through to victory.