Struggling to Un-Love Ex-Sins: A Long Repentance in the Same Direction

You’ve seen it happen, probably experienced it yourself. A serious relationship ultimately darkens. But the disappearance of its light is not like the flick of a switch. It’s more akin to the dying of a campfire: dancing flames burn down to collapsing embers. It takes time. After all, you invested some of yourself in that person. You swapped secrets, made memories, relished intimacies. Even if the relationship ended badly, you can’t simply unremember the happy times. So try as you might to move on, to evict that person from your head and heart, they seem to be everywhere. You drive past that restaurant where you enjoyed a meal together; there’s that song on the radio you danced to. With a mind full of memories, and a present pregnant with the past, learning to un-love an ex-love is an ongoing, long-term struggle.

It is not much different when that serious relationship happened to be with a particular sin. Maybe the addiction or the sex or the stealing or the violence—whatever your lover was—ultimately made your life a living hell before you finally severed those bonds. But there is no delete button in your brain that easily eradicates all memories of that sin-to-sinner relationship. For between the hours of pain, there were moments of pleasure. The demons know to coat their lips with sugar, so that later, even when they begin to devour us, we still foolishly taste the sweetness of their kiss. Even more complicated is when, in the very midst of sin, a gift of God is given. For example, children are a gift of the Lord, but what if a man fathers a child with another man’s wife? That son or daughter, the embodiment of their adulterous liaison, is also the embodiment of a divine gift. These situations of sin and repentance and God’s activity therein can get real messy, real quick.

So here is our dilemma: even though we have given up the drugs, or ended the affair, or stopped the stealing—severed the bonds with whatever our ex-sin may be—we ask ourselves, “Have I repented enough? Have I repented sincerely enough? Since I still struggle to un-love the ‘good things’ that happened while I was engaged in that sin, have I repented at all or am I just deceiving myself?”

As I have written about elsewhere (in “I Stab it With My Steely Knife But I Can’t Kill the Beast Within” and “I’ve Spent the Better Part of My Life Trying to Kill a Man”), the struggle against sin, any sin, is lifelong. A woman may never shoplift again or a man embezzle from his company again, but the monster of greed that drove them to steal abides in the lair of their heart to their dying day. Repentance is not an occasional emotion, but an ongoing motion. It is the motion of God’s hand, reaching down to grab the old Adam by his neck and shove his head again and again and yet again under the waters of Baptism, that the new man in Christ might arise again and again and yet again. The entire life of believers is one of repentance.

Therefore, drawing lines that demarcate where repentance begins and where it ends is like drawing lines in water. It gets even worse if you start asking quantitative or qualitative questions such as, “Am I repentant enough?” or “Have I shown sufficient contrition?” or “Am I sorry because of what I did or only because I got caught?” Such questions are not only wrong-headed; to demand an answer to them from yourself or others is likely only to drive you to question your repentance, its sincerity, and ultimately whether God has forgiven you in Christ.

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Prodigal Son Returns Home: by Edward Riojas

Here is the most important point I want to make: Absolution is never a layaway plan, forgiveness you finally get to take home once you’ve satisfied the payment plan with enough acts of repentance. That’s because forgiveness does not originate from repentance; it originates solely from Christ. The father did not forgive the prodigal son because he returned home, said he was sorry for his sins, and was unworthy to be called a son anymore. The father had forgiven his son even while that son was feeding swine in a faraway country. The father had forgiven his son before he saw him a long way off and began running toward him. The father had forgiven his son because he was his son, because he loved him as only a father can. So it is with us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The world was absolved on Good Friday. And that forgiveness, given to you in the here and now, is not earned, or allowed, or sweetened, or strengthened, or made more real by your repentance.

Should you repent of the wrong you’ve done? Of course. Should you continue to repent as you struggle to un-love that ex-sin? Of course. You will never repent enough. You will never repent sincerely enough. But forgiveness is not based upon having enough repentance or having sufficiently sincere repentance. Absolution is based upon the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His atonement is enough. His sacrifice was perfectly sincere. His blood covers not only the sin of which you repent, but your imperfect repentance for that sin.

The entire life of believers is one of repentance, but more importantly, the entire life of believers is the life of Jesus Christ, whose love for us is always more than enough.

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If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!

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17 thoughts on “Struggling to Un-Love Ex-Sins: A Long Repentance in the Same Direction

  1. Your article reminded me of a minor episode in the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle in the ’90s. The senator who was the President’s nemesis was Henry Hyde. It came out that he had an extra-marital affair when he was young. His response was, “I think the statute of limitations has run out on my youthful indiscretions.” I remember talking at the TV: It doesn’t work that way. God’s Law does not work that way. It is unforgiving. “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!” Ps. 25: 7 I wonder how old the Psalmist was when he prayed that and how many times he prayed it! Repentance is the Lord’s hesed, steadfast love, like a fount of living water, was there before the sin, before the foundations of the world, steadfast love become flesh. Thanks for your article!

    • I had forgotten about that incident from the Clinton days. A great example! Thank God that His absolution knows no time limits either. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Appreciated the article. I would add that from the son’s point of view the father forgave his wayward son when the father embraced him. So we can know we have the Father’s forgiveness when we receive his embrace through the absolution given by a pastor in Word and Sacraments. Jesus’ love and forgiveness is found in the real time and place means of grace, which bring the atonement to the here and now.

  3. Katie on said:

    Thank you! So appreciated.

  4. jamesbradfordpate on said:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings and commented:
    Helpful reflections on repentance and forgiveness.

  5. Henrik of SWE on said:

    Thank you for another christ-focused article! I really enjoy reading them. But theological question still runs in my head. What is the meaning of repentance? Why should we repent? It is obvious according to the word of God that the forgiveness is given solely without any merits what so ever, why then the invitations from Jesus and his apostles to repent? Should we see them as the mirror of our sins (2:nd use of the law) or as the attitude of the already forgiven son at his Fathers feast? or something else ( or maybe all)? I hope you understand my question?
    Once again thank you for your edifying bloggposts. // Henrik

    • Henrik, I understand repentance to be a part of faith, which is a gift of God – of God from God. The son does not receive the father’s forgiveness until and unless he repents and the father grants his absolution. It is a “work” only in that God does it in us and through us. We must come to God in repentance to receive forgiveness, but even repentance along with forgiveness is God’s work because we are saved and sanctified by grace through faith through Word and Sacrament.

    • Henrik, I appreciate your comment and questions. To put it in the language of Luther’s catechism, we repent because we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. To repent is to be a Christian: to confess that which is true about ourselves according to the law, but also (by faith) to confess that which is even truer about ourselves according to the Gospel–that in Christ we are forgiven.

  6. Ken Humphrey on said:

    Chad– thank you again for another well-written article that placards Christ and His atoning work for us. May I share this with the folks at Trinity? Thanks much (and stay out of the heat– that is, San Antonio’s temperature, not Miami’s basketball team. I figured I should clarify since the NBA finals are upon us ;))

  7. Excellent! You’ve done a masterful job of delineating the boundaries here. Repentance is not quantitive. I really liked the ending here. It is comforting for sinners to hear these liberating words.

  8. Michael Francetich on said:

    Thank you for posting this meditation. It is something I will continue to reread and point others to it. May the Spirit give peace to those who read it.

  9. anonymoud on said:

    I’ve struggled with un-loving my ex-sin. I’ve thought I’d never repent enough. I’ve thought I’d understood that the absolution I’ve received would make me forget my ex-sin but it hasn’t. I’ve never repeated the sin and I won’t. I don’t know why my friend reposted this blog today but it was important for me to read it. My repentance is imperfect but Christ’s forgiveness is perfect. I’ll continue to repent I’m sure, but I do understand I’m forgiven.

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