Repentance or Remorse?

And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. (1 Kings 21:27)

Ahab was a wicked king, as anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures will know. From the beginning of his reign until the end he defied the Lord God of Israel, in whose stead he reigned. Two verses earlier it is written: “But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the LORD, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up.” (1 Kings 21:25)

After King Ahab took possession of the murdered Naboth’s vineyard, God sent Elijah to prophesy against him. Elijah told Ahab that Jezebel would be eaten by dogs, that he himself would have his blood licked up by dogs where Naboth had died, that God would cut off his posterity and all his descendants would have ignominious deaths. Upon hearing this, Ahab humbled himself before God by tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth garments, fasting, and mourning.

How long all of this went on we are not told. We are told that God honored his self-humiliation and postponed the fulfillment of the prophecy until after Ahab’s death.

Many people are like Ahab. They live wicked lives and then catastrophe strikes. They are told they are dying of cancer or some other terrible event is going to befall them. They cry out to God and set about reforming their behavior. God grants them a reprieve, like Ahab. Like Ahab, they soon forget the mercies of God, “not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4 HCSB).

Of these people St. Peter says, “But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, ‘The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.’ ” (2 Peter 2:22).

There is a difference between repentance and remorse. Repentance involves not only acknowledging that one has gone the wrong way but that one has sinned against and offended an holy God with the result that that person turns and walks righteously before God. Remorse is merely being sorry — usually more sorry about being caught or being punished rather than a sorrow for having violated God’s commands.

It is usually not too difficult to determine which of the two, repentance or remorse, is active. One need only watch the behavior of the offending person for a period of time. Repentance produces good fruit; remorse only stops producing the bad. Repentance is at the root, in the heart; remorse is only a garment covering up a filthy person. Repentance lasts; remorse disappears with time. Repentance is concerned with pleasing God; remorse is concerned with oneself. Repentance recognizes the justice of God and accepts it; remorse recognizes the justice of God and tries to evade and avoid it. Repentance works life; remorse works death.

God is good and his goodness is designed to lead us to repentance. Remorse is good only when it is coupled with true repentance. May the deceitfulness of sin never bring us to the place where we do not know the difference.

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