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.