Breathing Repentance: The Discipline of Confession

Sarah   |   October 25, 2018 


Repentance is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a whole way of life. Jack Miller

A few years ago, I realised I was only confessing sin in church when we did so together. My discipline of confession was far from disciplined! I thought, I know I sin; in fact, I know I’m sinful in-and-of myself. Yet, how could I ‘forget’ to come before God and seek forgiveness?

After such a realisation, I began to think and pray specifically about repentance… What does repentance look like? How do I repent? I feel I’m still a beginner in making repentance a way of life, but there a few things that have helped me grow my discipline of confession. I share them in the hope they might help you too.

1. Seeing sin as a breach of relationship, not just a breach of rule [1]

Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the elite group known for their knowledge of and discipline in keeping the law, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the  Law?’ The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus with their question, but Jesus full of wisdom and truth replied, ‘You shall love the Lord you God with all of your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second it like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’ [2]

Love is the key verb in both these commandments. Love, by its very nature, is about relationship. Jesus, in his two-commandment-summary of the entire law, showed clearly what the Pharisees were missing – the law was always about relationship; first our relationship with God and second, our relationships with one another. The law was never meant to be a list of rules.

And while it is a breach of rule when we fail to keep the law (we have sinned and need to seek forgiveness from the Lord and from others), when we focus on our keeping or not keeping the law, we easily lose sight of the relationships the law points us to. We also lose sight of the One who not only fulfilled the law, but superseded the law, redeeming our relationship with God and with one another. [3]

So, what does it look like practically, to confess sin as a breach of relationship, rather than breach of rule? To begin with, I’m not asking myself, ‘Which of the ten commandments have I broken (or not broken) today?’ I am looking to my relationships, both with the Lord and with others, which leads me to the next point…

2. Instead of looking to repent of specific acts of sin, I am repenting of general attitudes in my heart [4]

And I have found that when I start this way around, beginning with repenting of my wrong heart attitude, I am then able to see more clearly specific acts of disobedience for which I need to seek forgiveness. Let me share an example.

Often when I am praying about a particular situation (it could be at work, at home, at church), if I’m honest, there’s usually an internal conversation taking place with God… ‘Lord, this would be a good plan.’ ‘Please God, just work things out this way, I think that really would be best.’ And when I put before God what I think should happen (I don’t just mean asking for favour) what I’m really saying is, ‘I know best.’ But the thing is, I don’t know best, I don’t even know for that matter.

So, I have come to regularly use Job’s confession as my own before God:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. [5]

God is God and I am not. And I’m thankful – because He is always good, absolutely faithful – and I am not! Yet, I seem all too easily to fall into this subtle, often subconscious, insidious pattern of thinking and praying. I do speak of what I do not know, of what I do not understand, and in so doing, I put myself above God.

When God helps me see this, I’m thankful. For in His mercy He loves me, revealing to me my sin – my wrong heart attitude that says I know better than Him – that I might repent and seek forgiveness.  And in His grace, He loves me all the more, forgiving and restoring me in relationship with Him.

Meditating on Scripture has helped me in thinking about repentance. Reading Job’s confession, til the point that I now know it by heart, led to a further discovery for me…

3. Even if there is no particular sin to confess, I can repent

Job is described as ‘blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil’ (Job 1:1). In other words, Job’s conscience was genuinely clear – ‘In all this Job did not sin with his mouth’ (Job 2:1). He did not sin, yet he repents – and that too, in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Why? At the end of the book of Job, God’s power, glory, and majesty are on full display. Job is exceedingly aware of God’s holiness, and the only right response is to repent. So, along with Job, we confess - You are God, and I am not.

This is by no means all there is to say on the discipline of confession. It is but a mere beginning, a few things that have helped me in making repentance more a way of life. I want to breathe repentance in prayer because repentance shows my dependence on Jesus. In other words, I want to breathe Jesus.



[1] Mike Emlet in ‘Perfectly Dreadful: Recognizing and Overcoming Perfectionism’ (a breakout session from the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation 2012 National Conference on Guilt and Shame) describes perfectionists as often mistakenly emphasising sin as a breach of rule rather than a breach of relationship.

[2] Matt. 22:34-40.

[3] Gal. 4:4-5; 6:2

[4] Walter Henegar, ‘Putting Off Procrastination’ Journal of Biblical Counseling, 20.1 (2001), p 43.

[5] Job 42:2, 3b, 5-6.


Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

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Sarah, a biblical counsellor from New Delhi, loves her time in the city with her wide circle of friends. She enjoys thinking deeply, playing the piano, being creative in the kitchen for her friends and having people come home. You will find Sarah always ready for a cup of tea or coffee (she likes both!) and chat.

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