Repentance and Change: Common Flaws

“I’ve been repenting of this sin—seems like thousands of times—but I can never make any progress!” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this from someone about repentance and what it looks like to change a deeply-rooted behavior. It is a common frustration about the nature of repentance.

I usually hear erroneous views of repentance when I first meet a man trying to stop using porn. Along with his struggle, there is a strong feeling of despair and a faltering assurance of salvation. “I’ve been told that sin does not have dominion over me, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Perhaps I’m not really a Christian.”

I can respond to this man in many ways to give him real hope, but one thing that can be of great help to him is some basic instruction on repentance. In his mind, he has given ample effort at this repentance thing and has found it ineffective in producing any lasting change. But in my observation and experience, there are a few common flaws in how repentance is done, which virtually guarantee it to be fruitless and frustrating. Here are three:

  1. The Lone Ranger Flaw  

I have estimated that the typical man coming to Harvest USA has been fighting his porn struggle for upwards of twenty years.

Alone. By himself. In secret. With no one else helping him.

Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle. Why? The shame they feel about their sin and about being exposed is just too intense. Shame gives them the excuse that they can overcome it on their own. “I can confess this after I have conquered it.” Then it can be a victorious testimony. But the victorious testimony never comes.

Trying to repent on your own fits well with the individualistic bent of our heart, but it is unbiblical and foolish. Proverbs 18:1 warns us, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” This is selfish and bad judgment.

Year after year, he has wrestled with the revolving cycle of will power, weakness, guilt, and despair—without enlisting the help of another soul in the battle.

The Bible consistently depicts a healthy, godly life as one lived in community, in relationship with others. The godly life is profoundly relationally connected; we image a Trinitarian God, after all. Christians are fellow members of one “body,” where the “eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). And, as John points out, truthful confession and “walking in the light” is integral to fellowship with both God and one another (1 John 1:6-10).

Further, trying to beat a sin like pornography on your own shows a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual sin. Sexuality is inherently relational. Sexual sin of every type is a relational sin, even if that sin is one done in private, like watching porn. Even if you think you commit your sin in the privacy of your own imagination, you are training your heart and body to treat others in a profoundly selfish and destructive way. A sin that involves attitudes and actions towards other people cannot be repented of in isolation from people.

So why do we cling to an individualistic, isolationist approach to repenting?  We need to dig a bit deeper about shame.

  1. The Shame Syndrome Flaw  

A desire to escape shame can look like true repentance, but it is not. I am not thinking of shame as a proper sense of guilt before God, but of a painful, self-deprecating alertness to the judgmental opinions of other people. This is one piece of the “worldly grief” described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, where Paul says “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

We can experience grief over a variety of consequences of our sin: a lost job, economic hardship, marital strife, etc. Some people may misinterpret grief over these kinds of things as repentance.

But the grief we feel over shame is the easiest to mistake for repentance. The sense of shame is so closely connected to the sin that honest expressions of shame (“I am so ashamed of what I have done!”) can sound to those around us—and ourselves—like sincere hatred of sin. But it may not be.

It might only be that it hurts that people see your “dirty laundry.” This may especially be the case if the occasion for our seeking help is having been caught in sin. In other words, a sudden and humiliating shame has been forced upon us, and we are eager to get rid of it. What looks like an earnest effort at repentance may really be a striving to push through and beyond this present shame to reach a place where we can be at peace with our reputation again.

True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.  

What are the effects of this repentance flaw? Because our strongest motivation is to be rid of shame, we will not maintain humility and honesty for the long haul. We will tend towards minimizing the sin that is still in our hearts and overestimating our repentance “success.” We will be quick to claim “victory,” giving the impression that whatever we have to be ashamed of is past and gone.

Now people will think well of us again. Now we can exchange being known as a sinner for being known as a sin-conqueror. Ironically, the “victorious testimony” we mentioned in flaw #1 is now achieved, but it is a shame.

  1. The “Just Stop It” Flaw

A third flaw is focusing your repentance almost entirely on stopping a behavior. This fits naturally with flaw #2; it is primarily the behavior that has gotten us in trouble and earned us the shame we want to escape. Accordingly, we think the solution is to cease that behavior. Like the effort to escape shame, this can look a lot like real repentance. Shouldn’t we try to stop this sinful behavior, after all? Yes.

But the flaw in this way of repenting is that it does not adequately understand the nature of sin.

The mistake here is that sin is viewed as nothing more than wrong behavior. But the Bible presents behavior as the final, outwardly visible manifestation of the affections, desires, and thoughts deep in our heart. Sinful behavior, then, is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Repentance that ignores this reality fails.

So a behavior focus is much too narrow. Any one behavior is the fruit of deeper desires and thoughts of the heart. The truth is that the roots of sin in our hearts find expression in a wide variety of sinful behaviors. For instance, a habit of using porn may be an expression of an inner desire to control people and circumstances to project a sense of self-importance as an antidote to deep insecurities. That same heart desire is acted out not just in looking at porn, but in manipulative and destructive ways in how you treat your wife, conflicts with co-workers, parenting, driving, etc. Merely trying to curb one behavior, porn use, without addressing the heart, leaves all these other areas untouched. Any change achieved is weak and unsustainable.

True repentance does the hard work of examining the inner motivations and thoughts of our heart, seeking their transformation through the gospel.

Are you or someone you know struggling with a persistent and frustrating battle with porn?  Are you struggling to understand how gospel repentance truly works? Before you are tempted to revise the promises of the gospel to fit the complete inertia of your repentance, make sure you are not working with a completely unbiblical view of sin and repentance.

Stop going it alone. Seek help. Confess to your brothers. Repent beyond your shame; repent of loving your own reputation more than God and the people around you.

Finally, repent of sin deeper than behavior; let the gospel confront your heart.

Jim Weidenaar
About The Author
Jim Weidenaar joined the Harvest USA staff in June of 2012 as Director for the Greater Pittsburgh Region (GPR). He has a burden to help those struggling with sexual sin, that they will come to understand and experience progress in gospel repentance. Jim has a Masters Degree in Theological Studies (MTS) from Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, and a Doctorate in Historical and Theological Studies (Phd) from Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA. He resides in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter.

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