(1) What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (6) But he (God) gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:2, 6-10)
There is a way to feel sorry about your sin that is sin itself. This is called “worldly grief.” It’s ungodly because it doesn’t come from God and it doesn’t please him. It’s also ineffective because it doesn’t really change the heart. And of course the heart, according to James, is where it all starts.
But there is a way to regret your sin that will move you past surface-level tears and apologies to a much deeper, more fruitful way of living. This is called repentance, and this is from God.
In this brief passage, James gives us a picture of godly repentance, a step-by-step strategy for deep, lasting change. It involves three basic elements:
1) Identify Your Sin. James says, “Hey, all this fighting and trouble-making is coming from inside of you!” So often we look around us for the source of our problems, but all too often we are missing the real source of troubles: ourselves.
Are you secretly protecting a favorite sin of yours? Do you keep running back to the same sinful behavior—is it a habit, a pattern in your life? Are you ignoring a problem in your life? Do you have regular times of healthy self-examination? Do you reflect on readings from Scripture in a way that causes you to see your own sin? When things are hard in your life, do you blame others or do you first look for the “log in your eye?”
2) Grieve Over Your Sin. James doesn’t have in mind here some sort of ridiculous, exaggerated over-acting. Instead, James calls us to take our sin seriously—so seriously that it affects our emotions and our attitude. True repentance isn’t acting—it’s being broken by God over the condition of your heart. This may cause a few tears at the least; it will definitely be painful.
Have you been deeply broken by God over this sin? Has this conviction of sin caused you to be alarmed by the condition of your heart? Have you agreed with God that your sin is ugly? Has it led you to an emotional and physical response?
3) Receive Grace and Joy. What James is not saying is “Beat yourself up.” What James is saying is, “Accept responsibility and run to God—he will forgive you and restore you.” Real repentance doesn’t lead us to grovel in the dirt and feel bad about ourselves—that never changes anyone. Real repentance causes us to recognize that we have an enemy, Satan; it causes us to run away from evil; and it causes us to run without hesitation or fear to God, because he always has more grace for broken sinners.
Do you “grovel in the dirt” when you sin? Do you tend to feel sorry for yourself when you mess up (this is really a form of self-righteousness)? Do you move quickly past your sin and look to the unending, forever-forgiving love and grace of God in Christ? Which seems bigger to you: your sin or God’s grace?
When we sin (and we will), we must repent, but repentance doesn’t leave us in the grave. Repentance doesn’t leave us on the cross either (that was Jesus’ job). Repentance leaves us before God, broken and joyful: broken over our sin but rejoicing in his mercy and grace.
(For further study, see Psalm 51, 2 Corinthians 7, and 1 Peter 5)