We must do a lot of hard work in explaining true, biblical repentance when working with the poor (or anybody for that matter). Being sorry and repenting for sins are two completely different acts that produce two very different long-term fruits in people’s lives.
Sin is grievous to God, separating us from him. Repentance is a turning away from that sin. The difficulty pastorally comes in the fact that repentance can look very different when dealing with broken and chaotic lives.
Take Innocencia, a 13-year-old street girl from northern Brazil. She had lived on the streets for most of her short life. Her parents abandoned her at 5 years old, and from the age of 6 onwards she had sold her body for sex to pay for food and to feed her glue habit. When we found her she was in a mess. One of her arms had been crippled from a beating she took on the streets from a punter, all of her teeth were missing, and she had been raped countless times.
One day, when she heard the life transforming truth about God, her sinful position before him, and the good news of what Jesus had done, she wanted to repent on the spot. We prayed with her and trusted that she had made a genuine profession of faith.
Several days later, we found Innocencia barely conscious in the streets, a bag of industrial strength glue at her feet (incidentally, a far deadlier poison than heroin). My Brazilian team were devastated and angry; her repentance had seemed so genuine!
We got her to her feet, cleaned her up at our center, and spoke to her about the commitment she had made to Christ. “Oh, Pastor Mez,” she said, “I do love Jesus. I have turned from my sin. Last night I turned a client down and I am now only doing 6 bags a day instead of 10.” She beamed at me with pride and I felt chastened. Was I really expecting that she’d be a finished product on day 1 of conversion?
Repentance in the schemes of Scotland is not dissimilar, although not often as extreme. How about the man who comes to Christ, has three children by two different women, and wants to turn from his sinful, abusive past and be a proper father to his children? What does repentance look like for him? Well, one way or the other, it’s not going to be simple and clean. For people in messy situations, repentance is going to involve making hard decisions and dealing with the consequences of a selfish and sinful lifestyle.
Sharon was a woman in her thirties who came from a terrible background. She had four children, and all had been removed from her by the local authorities. She had served countless prison sentences for petty theft and drug offences. She was loud, brash, and the leader of a gang of shoplifters in her local city center. She came to a drop-in center where I was volunteering and heard me explain the gospel as I shared what Christ had done in my life. She came to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I want Jesus in my life. I want to be changed like you have been.” My heart went out to her.
I looked at her and said, “It comes at a great cost and you have to know this. I had to turn my back on everything I knew, including my friends and even some family members in order to truly grow as a Christian. How you see me here today is ten years of painful growth. It doesn’t happen overnight. Jesus asks us to count the cost before we agree to follow him. He doesn’t want us to be fooled into thinking life will get easier. In fact, it will possibly get harder as friends reject us and misunderstand our motives for embracing this new life. Why don’t you go away and think about that and come back tomorrow? If you think God is really calling you to repent and turn form your sins, then meet me here tomorrow at 10 a.m.” I never heard from her again.
Did I do the right thing? I think so. I have done it many times since. Working with vulnerable people, the temptation is to push them into some form of commitment in their emotionally fragile states. It is easily done, and people from poorer backgrounds can be easily manipulated into following Jesus for a whole host of reasons. But genuine repentance is a work of God’s Spirit, and we do people a huge disservice if we do not present to them the cost of following Christ.
One of my favorite questions to ask drug addicts who often sit in my office and ask me if they can “get saved” is: “What are you prepared to give up in order to follow Jesus Christ?” If the answer is not, “everything” then they are not ready, and they have not understood the gospel message. The usual answer is, “Mez, I will do anything.” My response: “Anything? Are you sure? Okay, give me your mobile phone so I can take your SIM card and delete your dealer’s numbers.” Ninety-nine percent of the time they get up and walk out. If they can’t pay that price, then they won’t pay Christ’s.
This post is adapted from Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.