The prophet Jeremiah wrote at a time when the nation of Judah faced exile; they were about to be captured by the nation of Babylon, and God said this through His prophet:
“Oh, Israel my faithless people, come home to me again for I am merciful.
I will not be angry at you forever only acknowledge your guilt,
admit that your rebelled against the Lord your God,
and you committed adultery against your God by worshiping other idols.
Confess that you refused to listen to my voice.”
When you read the prophets you constantly read this theme of repentance. It is one of the great scriptural patterns: repent and confess. Turn and get explicit about your weakness/failure/need.
The Prophet Ezekiel wrote during the time of exile said it every more succinctly: “Tell the people of Israel this is what the sovereign Lord says, ‘Repent and turn away from your idols and stop all for your detestable sins.’”
Repent and confess. Turn and confess your weakness and your need.
Of course, we see this pattern in Jesus, himself. “Repent and believe.”
The turning point for our human sinfulness and selfishness is forgiveness and then transformation. Repent from darkness, be transformed by light. The church has often stopped at forgiveness, probably because it’s easier to legislate and control forgiveness than it is actually disciple people and deal with the underlying messiness.
But even if we understand the critical nature of confession and repentance, the words might become tainted for us if we don’t understand their full meaning, scripturally speaking. To confess means “to acknowledge and admit,” and repentance means “to turn from one direction to another,” as in turning from death to life. But sometimes when we confess and repent, what we mean is, “I’m going to get it all right now!” or “This is never going to happen again!” Oftentimes we relate to grace as a second change to get it right. We often follow confession and repentance with a burst of will power and resolution, much like we would relate to a new diet or New Year’s resolution.
This is certainly how I related to confession and repentance for most of my life. I would do something that violated my conscience—watching pornography comes to mind—and feel a sense of shame and frustration, followed by resolve to stop and turn over a new leaf. Sin, shame, resolve, breaking point and sin again, shame, new resolve, breaking point, repeat cycle. If will power is our only tool, it can be very hard to find our way out of this cycle. But this was all I knew: my idea of having a Savior was that Jesus would tolerate me until I got things right. I spent so much energy in The Human Paradigm, trying to arrive at a place where I was fully free of sin and selfishness.
Will power is a good thing, of course. As is the sincere desire to do better. But will power alone will usually leave us feeling frustrated, at least when dealing with things at a deeper level of heart and mind. The problem is that will power, when not coupled to a deeper, internal reckoning and re-orientation, is much like throwing paint on an un-sanded surface; usually, the results don’t last for long.
The problem is that the necessary internal reckoning can feel quite uncomfortable! Not to mention confusing. The deeper things of heart and mind are often mysteries to us, evading our best efforts at understanding, let alone transformation. Why does one reach into the cookie jar again, knowing it will ultimately lead to misery? Why do we find ourselves in the same pattern of broken relationship….again? The parts of our hearts “underneath the surface” need help much greater than the capacities of our merely mortal minds and will power. What we need, in fact, is a source of transformative power outside of ourselves—God—which transcends our human faculties. And becoming open to God means understanding confession and repentance at a deeper level. That is: biblical confession and repentance is not just naming our failures so that we can resolve to try hard to do better. Indeed, confession and repentance is more than just the confession of things we have gotten wrong, it’s the confession that we cannot get everything right. It is not solely a confession of things done, but of our limitations as human beings. It is not simply a doing thing, it is a being thing. We move from confessing failure to confessing weakness.
This is a truth with which we may agree and yet resist. It’s a scandal to our minds and it makes little sense, which is why so much of Paul’s writing was spent trying to get people to accept this incredibly counter-intuitive reality: we don’t come to God by our strength but by our weakness. In fact, Paul actually said that the Law—all the things that Israel was supposed to do and get right--was actually given to Israel to demonstrate and to finally convince them that they couldn’t get it all right! Maybe Israel could master some prayers and practices and religious performance. Perhaps the men could look fancy in their religious apparel. But the only way real transformation happens is by becoming open to God, and that happens in confessing—celebrating, even—our weakness.
This is why following Jesus is founded on the scandal of grace. We have to learn that the way into fullness is the way of emptying. This is why Jesus says that we have to lose our life to find it.  Confessing weakness can feel like losing our life, built as it is on our sense of strength and success. But it is also the path into abundant life.
 Jeremiah 3:11-13
 Ezekiel 14:6
 See, for example, Mark 1:15
 The Hebrew word shub, often translated “to repent,” means literally to turn back or to return
 See, for example, the argument surrounding Galatians 3:24.
 See Matthew 10:39