The New Year dawns. And yet for some of us, the hope it holds out is not vibrant enough to erase that gnawing sense of emptiness within. “What do I need more of?”, we wonder.. more exercise? more love? more drive? more purpose? more discipline? more of God? More breaks? Or perhaps we’d rather word it as what we need less of..less fights, less stress, less debt, less commuting, less drama…?
I think of Jesus approaching the woman at the well, offering her ‘water’ that will leave her permanently satisfied. His exact words – “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.” ( The Bible, John 4:13-14). My soul has often salivated at those words of Jesus, particularly in seasons or days when life feels ‘dry’. What I would give to never thirst!
What’s still missing? Why does dryness persist even for those of us who’ve encountered the Fountain of Living Water? Why isn’t the Good News gladdening our hearts the way it’s supposed to? I believe that one big reason could be that we’ve engaged with only one half of the ‘good news’.
I was struck by these verses in the Gospel of Mark -“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God”.(The Bible, Mark 1:14) Ever wondered about the Gospel that Jesus preached? What was its content? (That’s a question worth asking in a time where we’re exposed to so much preaching and teaching on the Gospel. )
Well, Mark in his characteristically crisp style answers that question in the very next sentence. He quotes Jesus’ message of the good news to be – “ the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel”.(The Bible, Mark 1:15) The Good news according to Jesus? – God’s rule on the Earth is immanent! In short, God was finally going to have His way with His Creation. The old order of darkness and death was going to give way to the new order of the Kingdom of light and life! The rules of the game were about to permanently change! And an invitation was being made to change ours too!
In Biblical scripture we see that this is indeed the hope of the ages..that God would finally take His place on the throne. Now, the people of Jesus’ time;the Jewish priests and scholars believed that this reality was to be fulfilled in the Person of a Political leader/a Messiah who would free the Jews from the yoke of Roman oppression but Jesus’ disciples came to understand that this rule would begin in quite an unexpected place -not in the corridors of political power as was assumed but rather in God’s dominion over the human heart, for He had taught them, “the Kingdom of God is within you! “ (The Bible, Luke 17:21). It therefore makes perfect sense for repentance to be an intrinsic part of Jesus’ teaching -a new rule was about to be established and we were to wholeheartedly amend our ways to welcome it!
Through his death Jesus paved the way for this rule to begin. He took upon Himself the sin of the world -the corruption and decadence of our hearts, so that God’s spirit might dwell within us and make us alive again to Him! But here’s the truth I want to underline -this indescribably precious gift of new life does not get ‘activated’ without repentance. Could it be possible that this is the ‘missing ingredient’ in our lives? For if there’s no repentance, there’s no life. Or to put it in the words of James (the brother of Jesus) – “faith without works is dead”. (The Bible, James 2:26) Faith not expressed in acts of repentance is dead and cannot bring life. In other words it could be that what we need is not more of this or that, nor more of God ..nor even more of answered prayer but rather it is God having more of us that is the pressing need of the hour.
To be honest, I’ve been troubled by teaching and preaching that’s focused entirely on receiving the free gift of Jesus’ sacrifice on behalf of humanity. True, the gift is free. No amount of moral and spiritual scrubbing will cleanse our sin-stained hearts but indeed if a new Kingdom has come, and Jesus is the King and Ruler of that Kingdom, the gift must be met with the offering of a humbled, repentant life!
And that brings me to another very important point. Repentance is not a ‘moment of confession’. It’s a lifestyle. It is the Christian lifestyle. There’s no life without it. There are two other words that we can substitute for repentance here – obedience or self denial. Repentance/obedience/self-denial – all three words come down to the same thing. To receive Jesus is more than a prayer..to receive means to welcome and to welcome God means to live life on His terms, not ours. It is only when we implement this self-denial/obedience/repentance in the minutiae of our day to day actions and choices, that we will experience the power of the new life He came to give us. It is then that we will drink from the fount of living waters to the satisfaction of our souls. I suspect that what is killing our spiritual vitality is not the absence of more revelation of God, but the absence of more repentance. (In truth the Bible teaches that Repentance leads to Revelation, but that’s for another blog..)
We preach, “Find Jesus, Find Peace”, “Find Jesus, Find Hope”, “Find Jesus, Find Joy”, but truth is, none of these manifest in our experience without the wholehearted turning of our choices towards God…not just our faces..our choices. Why are we as believers still empty? Because sadly, in believing, we’ve forgotten to follow. To use a rather harsh metaphor, we use Him as a towel to wipe up our dirt but have forgotten to gird our towels around our waists and serve others the way He modelled for us. We ‘accept’ Him like a legal loophole to escape the penalty of sin but that’s not the same as repentance and it is repentance He seeks. He seeks the intimacy borne from like-mindedness.
Jesus said, that there was only ONE way to find life, and that was to lose it! (“For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it.- The Bible, Luke 9:24) Indeed what we need more of is ‘self-death’ and what we need less of is our chronic self-centredness. The road to life and satisfaction begins when we continue in believing and repenting in thought and action. One without the other leads to death, not life.