Have you ever felt like your relationship with God wasn’t what it should be? I think if we’re honest, we’ve all had seasons in our lives where we knew we weren’t quite right with God. Some of us are going through that right now. Sometimes we know what put that distance in our relationship with Him, sometimes we’re not quite sure how we drifted away. We just know we need to get back.
The Jews and Messianic believers say the month leading up to Yom Teruah (Feast of Trumpets) and the 10 Days of Awe between Trumpets and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are a season of teshuva. This word literally means “return.” It is derived from the word shub (H7725), which is the form used in scripture. When the Old Testament talks about people turning away from their sins, this is the word typically used (examples: 1 Kings 8:47; Eze. 14:6; 18:30). We also translate shub and teshuva as repentance.
- (Side Note: the English word “repent” in the KJV Old Testament is usually translated from nacham (H5162), to be sorry, and is most often used of God. However, our modern understanding of repentance is better expressed by shub or teshuva.)
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that all the “idioms describing man’s responsibility in the process of repentance … are subsumed and summarized by this verb shub. For better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good” (entry 2340).
Today is the Sabbath between Trumpets and Atonement. It’s traditionally known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. While repentance is something we do year round, this is a fitting season to think more deeply about where we stand with God and in what ways we need to turn back to Him.
You won’t find a how-to guide to repentance in the Bible. Instead, the method for returning to God is illustrated with stories. David is probably the best known example, with his repentance following the Bathsheba incident (2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51).
In Hebrew, the most common word for sin means “to miss the goal” (H2398). It’s like you’re shooting arrows toward a target and they fall short, hit outside the bulls eye, or sail too far. You have to adjust things before you try again or you’ll just keep missing the mark. We realign ourselves with God via teshuva. The Jews teach this process involves four steps:
- Regret — to realize what you’ve done is wrong and be sincerely sorry about it. We see David hit this point in 2 Samuel 12:1-14.
- Cessation — stop the action which is sinful. You can’t return to God until you turn away from sin. In David’s case, the murder and adultery were already done, but he did stop acting as if it was okay.
- Confession — verbally telling God that you know you’ve sinned and asking forgiveness. If possible, you ask forgiveness from the people you’ve wronged as well. Psalm 51 is an example of this.
- Resolution — commitment not to repeat the sin. David never conspired to kill an innocent man or committed adultery again.
Calls To Repentance
There are calls to repentance throughout the Bible. We’ll focus on just one. In the third chapter of Jeremiah, God asks Israel a question. “If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?” It’s assumed that’s not something men would, or should, do, especially if the wife was unfaithful before he put her away. But Israel “played the harlot with many lovers” and the Lord still says, “Yet return to Me” (Jer. 3:1)
Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: ‘Return, backsliding Israel,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not cause My anger to fall on you. For I am merciful,’ says the Lord; ‘I will not remain angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the Lord your God, and have scattered your charms to alien deities under every green tree, and you have not obeyed My voice,’ says the Lord. “Return, O backsliding children,” says the Lord; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (Jer. 3:12-15)
God longs for His people to come back to Him. No matter how grievous their sins, He wants to restore relationship. That’s why the Father sent the Son and the Son willingly died for the sins of the world. Christ’s sacrifice made it so we could be thoroughly cleansed from sin when we repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31). Now, returning to God includes His removal of the things that block our relationship with Him.
In Revelations 2, Jesus warns the Ephesian church, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5). Repentance restores relationship with our Lord. It’s about returning to our “first love.”
Repentance is something all of us keep doing throughout our lives. Even after we’re baptized and cleansed by Jesus, we still “miss the mark” at times. The important thing to remember when this happens is that we must keep turning back to God. He doesn’t want us to give up on ourselves and He’s ever ready to forgive when we turn back to Him.
In Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who sins against him. He thinks seven sounds like a reasonable number, but Jesus says, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22). He then tells a parable illustrating that it’s imperative for us to forgive others. In fact, forgiving is a requirement for receiving forgiveness (Matt. 18:35; 6:14-15).
The other thing we can learn from this passage is how ready God is to forgive us. Jesus wouldn’t have told Peter to forgive seventy times seven times if the Father wasn’t willing to forgive even more readily. Also, the king picturing God in this parable forgives an enormous debt because he “was moved with compassion” when the debtor asked for mercy (Matt. 18:23-27). Our Lord will do likewise when His people ask.
God wants to forgive all who have strayed from His perfect way of life. He does expect two things from us, though. 1) we must ask for forgiveness. It’s available, but it’s not applied automatically. We must repent and come back to Him and then we’ll be forgiven. 2) We have to share the compassion He has showed us with others. Refusing to forgive others is to reject the forgiveness God offers us.
Today, in this holy season, let’s recommit to following Jesus. Let’s look at our lives and identify where we’ve missed the mark so we can change our trajectory and return to the Lord with all our hearts.