Reading through Jeremiah and Lamentations can be very depressing. The Lord sent warning after warning that he was about to punish the people of Jerusalem and Judah for their sins, giving them every opportunity to turn from them and turn back to God. Yet every warning was met with more of the same kind of action and attitude. Finally, the destruction happens and the people are carried off into exile just as God had forewarned them through Jeremiah.
It is at this point, in Lamentations, that we find the first right response from the people:
40 We must search and examine our ways; we must return to the Lord.
41 We should lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.
42 We are the ones who did wrong; we rebelled. But you, God, have not forgiven.
Here, finally, there is a recognition that it was the sins of the people that brought the judgment down upon them. Finally they recognize that they are the ones who were in the wrong, not God. Finally they understand they are the guilty party here.
But notice the last sentence in the last verse. God has not yet forgiven them. This is because it is one thing to recognize our guilt and be convicted of our sins, it is quite another thing to repent. Even feeling sorry for the sins and the wrongs we have done is not repentance. Recognizing our need for a savior is not repentance. True repentance is turning from our sins and to God. The sorrow, the guilt, and the need for a savior all are necessary parts of turning towards God, but without actually turning away from the sin there is no repentance.
Many times in churches across America people feel convicted of sin and recognize their need for a savior. They go forward, pray, and are declared forgiven and now a Christian. Yet these same people, after the emotional high of that experience wears off, find themselves still struggling with the same sins they have always had. This is because there was no real repentance, there was no turning away from the sin and towards God. The prerequisite for truly converting and becoming a Christian is to repent, believe, and confess; not feel guilty, believe, and confess.
Just as God gives us his grace to come to him, God also gives us his grace to truly repent and turn away from our sins. We must avail ourselves of that grace. Sometimes his grace is enough for us to turn our backs on that sin by ourselves and be freed from it in an instant. Sometimes his grace comes through the working of other Christians in our lives, acting like the Body of Christ in bearing one another’s burdens, to pray for us and support us and hold us accountable to exercising God’s power in our lives to turn away from that sin.
Without true repentance, though, we are left in the same position as the Lamentation above. We feel guilty and recognize we are where we are because of our sins, but God has not forgiven. Guilt alone is not enough. We must repent.