As a young pastor, in my first senior pastorate, I once had to counsel a man who had been very active in the church, but, it turned out, had been having an affair with another woman in the church for sixteen years… until he was found out.
And I suddenly found myself in the middle of a firestorm.
The man was quite a bit my senior, and challenged me with this question: Can you tell me if I divorce my wife and marry this woman I really love, that God won’t forgive me when I ask Him later?
Well, of course I couldn’t say that!
God’s mercy and grace are beyond our ability to comprehend. Without them where would any of us be?
But then I had a question for him: Are you a gambling man?
He shook his head, no, and asked me what that had to do with his situation.
Because, I pointed out, true repentance is never at our initiative. It is God’s initiative.
“You and I are incapable of bringing ourselves to repentance, and, to so willfully divorce your wife and marry your lover, you would be gambling on having even the desire for repentance on the other side of your disobedience.”
I didn’t have this passage in front of me in my study that day, but read Jeremiah 24:7 this morning and thought about that counseling session.
The chapter is regarding the exiles, sent off to Babylon to have their idols stripped out of their hearts, and God says… “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”
Do you see the cross-section of repentance in this verse?
1. In His mercy, God gives a rebellious people sent into exile from His presence, a heart to know Him, to belong to Him. The first move in repentance is always His. We are incapable of repentance on our own. Our hearts are too dark and deceived.
2. But, also in His mercy, God gives the exiles the freedom to respond to His initiative by then returning to Him with their whole heart.
The “returning” is their responsibility, but it is relatively easy when God has already moved on your heart to incline your heart to Him.
And that’s repentance.
Just to close the loop on my story, the man decided to stay with his wife and work on restoring their marriage. I have no idea if the time in my study had anything to do with his decision, but I certainly have never forgotten the experience.