When Repentance Happens

It really bothers me when I see no results after putting a lot of time and effort into something. As an electronics technician, I have to troubleshoot various electronic equipment problems. I enjoy doing this so long as I make some kind of headway. But if I spend weeks working on an especially stubborn problem with little or no progress, I get frustrated as I run out of ideas and energy.

Sometimes I forget that success, in any area of life, belongs to the Lord.

One of the things many pastors desire to see for their communities and congregations is people coming to repentance. Ceasing from sin, and humble submission toward God are great things to see, and very beneficial to the church as a whole. But many pastors get frustrated when they see little or no results after investing much time and effort into preaching repentance. Instead of fruit, the people get hardened to the message, and the pastor gets burned out and depressed.

Lately, I've been mulling over some examples of repentance in the Bible, thinking about the events that led to the change of heart. I've discovered that sometimes repentance happened seemingly out of the blue. A chief tax-collector repented after Jesus invited Himself over for dinner at his house. A prostitute showed up at a Pharisee's house ready to wash Jesus' feet with her tears. And Peter was suddenly convicted of sin in response to an unexpected blessing…

When he {Jesus} had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch."
Simon answered, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets."
- Luke 5:4-5 (NET)

The fishermen were cleaning their nets after a sleepless and fruitless night. They were fatigued and disappointed, and looked forward to just going home and getting some rest. But Jesus had another idea: "Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch." Exhausted, that was the last thing they wanted to hear.

But even though they had no hope for success, Peter decided to humor his Lord to prove the fish were elsewhere. But when he did, the unexpected happened!

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets started to tear. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
- Luke 5:6-8 (NET)

Suddenly, it seemed the sea was full of fish! As the nets filled, the men forgot their fatigue. I picture them whooping it up, straining with all their might to bring the catch into the boats. Jesus didn't just provide an adequate haul of fish, but an overabundance of fish – to the utter limit of what both boats would carry. All of the fishermen rejoiced… except Simon. He had a different reaction. He fell at Jesus' feet and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord!"

Now this is not the reaction I would have expected. Of all the times Peter could have been convicted of sin, why did it happen at this time?

As much as preachers and evangelists would like, most people don't truly repent when called to. It does happen sometimes, but not that often. Job repented (Job 42:6), but not because God told him to. Isaiah repented, even though nobody said, "You are a sinner!" (Isaiah 6:5). Even the prodigal son didn't have a change of heart due to an encounter with the message of repentance.

Not that preaching repentance is unnecessary. I believe it's very necessary. The way I see it, preaching the message of repentance is like sowing seed. You scatter the seed everywhere, but you shouldn't expect a harvest right away. Instead, after scattering the seed, you let it sit for a while. The message needs to remain undisturbed for a time so it can sink in. You can carefully water the seed or even sow more, but after sowing, you don't plow the soil (i.e. aggressively push for a decision), otherwise you have no reason to expect any harvest!

The important thing to remember is that God is in control of the harvest. He is the One who grants repentance (Acts 5:31, 11:18, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 2 Timothy 2:25, Ezekiel 36:26). It happens when God brings about some circumstance that triggers germination of the seed that was sown earlier. That circumstance is supernaturally engineered to bring the message from the head to the heart. It may not make sense to us, but it doesn't have to.

In Peter's case, the seed was sown in his life through the message he heard from John the Baptist and his own Master: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" Jesus engineered the miraculous catch of fish as the trigger for the message to cut to Peter's heart. I can't explain how this event had such a powerful effect on one disciple, not on the others. But I do know God knows what He is doing. He accomplishes what He sets out to do.

Sow the seed, but rely on God for the harvest. Only He can open the eyes and ears of the lost.