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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Desultory Spiritual Noises

I wrote recently about the subject of Christian confession in connection with Peter Ditzel’s comments on 1 John 1. Confession is how believers deal with disruptions in our fellowship with God that come from our tendency to sin.

Repentance is another part of that process.

Ideally the two go together, but they are not identical. As Ditzel demonstrates, like repentance, confession has both an attitudinal and an active aspect. Both involve changes of heart and life. But while genuine repentance gives rise to confession (where confession is appropriate), not every confession demonstrates real repentance, as we will shortly observe.

Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t just tell us what these things are, it also shows us what they aren’t.

While he is far from the only scriptural example of phony repentance, King Saul provides one of the most practical illustrations we have on record. At least three times we find Saul making confessions devoid of real repentance.

After the Battle, at Gilgal

First, we find that Saul has spared the king of the Amalekites and the best of his livestock in defiance of God’s command to utterly destroy them. The king is confronted by the prophet Samuel who has been sent by God to call him out for his sin. After a few futile attempts at denial and rationalization, Saul surprisingly jumps right into confession mode:
“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord … I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.”
This all sounds very convincing. I suspect many visitors to Catholic confessionals appear less contrite. But we know Saul’s confession has no real repentance behind it because he can’t stop making excuses for the way he has behaved: “I feared the people and obeyed their voice”. That, and because instead of humbling himself, Saul says to Samuel, “Yet honor me now.” No truly repentant individual engages in self-defense, and no true penitent fusses about his own dignity and stature as he contemplates the evil he has committed. Both are sure signs the person doing the confessing has missed the point of the exercise.

Contrast this with David, after his sin with Bathsheba and his murder by proxy of her husband Uriah. David fasted and wept, and lay all night on the ground. He made such a display of himself that the elders of his house came around to pick him up off the floor. Sure, he certainly had a motive in doing so, but my point is that he was entirely unconcerned about what anyone thought about him, king though he was. His sin and the evidence God was judging him were out there for all to see and learn from. David knew that whoever covers his transgressions will not prosper.

Saul, on the other hand, offered a more private confession to Samuel in the hope of being spared greater public humiliation.

The Cave at Wildgoats’ Rocks

Later, after David spares Saul’s life while catching him relieving himself in a dark corner, we find Saul engaged in another round of quite explicit confession:
“As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, ‘You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father’s house.’ ”
Here Saul demonstrates an extraordinary level of self-awareness. Sometimes people fail to repent because they really don’t really grasp that what they have done is wrong or why it is wrong. This is not at all the case here. Saul acknowledges the futility of pursuing David because, “I know that you shall surely be king.” He even blesses David, saying, “May the Lord reward you.” He is entirely clear what is wrong with his own behavior: “I have repaid you with evil.”

In the moment, perhaps, Saul may even think he means what he’s saying. He’s certainly emotional enough, weeping and making a big public display. But confession and even emotion are meaningless when the will to change has not been touched. We know Saul’s repentance here is phony because only two chapters later, he’s right back at it chasing David around the countryside.

On the Hill of Hachilah

Finally, toward the end of Saul’s reign, still on the run, David and two of his men sneak into Saul’s camp at night, and David takes Saul’s spear and water jar from beside the king’s vulnerable, sleeping form as evidence he means Saul no harm. Saul, again apparently contrite, begins emoting for the troops:
“I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Behold, I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake. Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them.”
We can’t say for sure whether Saul means this or not, because while he doesn’t know it yet, he’s nearing the end of the road. Sure, he doesn’t come after David again, but only because he will soon die in battle. But to me this smacks of cynical politicking. Saul’s own men, including his commander Abner, have twice watched David spare Saul’s life when he had the king dead to rights. To attempt now to murder David in front of them would be to give the lie to the excuses he had made to the people for harassing David, and to risk his own men turning on him. Note that the weeping is over, as usually occurs when we sin repeatedly in the same fashion. We become hardened over time.

A Small Caveat

False repentance, then, is exhaustively illustrated for us in the word of God. But we must be careful what we take from examining the confessions of people like Saul. If we think the value of the stories lies in equipping us to correctly identify phony confession, we have missed the boat as completely as Saul did. We are not here on earth to stand in judgment on the sincerity of others. Luke records the Lord’s own words on the subject:
“If [your brother] sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Ouch. See, to me seven times a day sounds like my brother hasn’t yet repented at all, but the Lord says that’s none of my business. He stands or falls to his own Master. My job is to forgive him from the heart when I hear him speak the words, not try to gauge his sincerity and premise my forgiveness on my own subjective conclusions.

No, the lesson we can learn from Saul, I think, is to carefully attend to our own hearts and actions. Apparently it is possible to confess over and over again with no real change of life. It also is possible to be painfully aware of all the specifics of our own sins without truly rejecting them. It is even possible to be genuinely emotional without truly regretting the right things. We need to ensure that we follow the words “Please forgive me” with the appropriate life changes.

Because it may take a while, but real repentance eventually produces change. It can’t be helped. Even if we go to the lengths of explicitly confessing our sins in front of the whole world, if we do not then change our pattern of life to authenticate our confession, we have only been making desultory spiritual noises.

In the end, a genuine change of mind must result in a corresponding change in behavior. If it doesn’t, it isn’t yet the real deal.

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