If there’s a word with a bad rap, it’s the word repent. That word can conjure up images of an angry prophet-like, old man scowling and pointing at people while bellowing the word REPENT! Or maybe that’s just the imagery that comes up for me. The underlying concept of a change of heart is wrapped up in that impression. However, I don’t find the picture in the Bible that when you do turn you will face certain wrath.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness
And relenting of evil.
The book of Joel is one place where we can see this call for repentance. These verses are part of a prophecy concerning the nation of Israel that Joel received from God. The prophecy is much longer, but these two verses stand out to me as a small window into God’s character. These two verses start out with God asking the people to return to him. He wants them to return, even now, but he wants them to return with genuine repentance.
Rending Their Hearts
The reference to rending their hearts and not their garments refers to a mourning ritual. Rending or tearing their clothing was an outward act that was supposed to represent what was going on inside. In this case the mourning would be part of their repentance, or mourning the sins of the people as a whole nation. This would be an outward statement that they, as a people, wanted to return to worshiping God. However, these verses are saying God wants them to rend their hearts rather than their garments—he doesn’t want the outward act if it’s not happening on the inside as well. He would rather have sincerity over the ritual.
Like anything else in life, it’s possible to make even an act of sorrow into a meaningless ritual and these verses are addressing that dichotomy. It’s possible to go through the motions of worshiping God while relegating him to an insignificant corner of our lives. In going through the motions, we can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve done something good, while we’ve really only gone through motions. This command might be similar to the idea, I want you to love me with your heart and not just your words.
The good news about these verses is that although we may drift away from God or even be living in opposition to how God wants us to live, we can still approach him. The second half of these verses talks about how loving and gracious God is. Although this is written in a specific context at a specific time, the truth of God’s love and compassion is woven throughout the entire Bible. So, instead of the imagery of an angry old man, when we approach God we will find that he is approaching us with mercy and love, ready to help us in our time of need.
Photo credit: Photo by Shamim Nakhai on Unsplash