You can only repent of one thing at a time: What the nature of our consciousness tells us about the work of the Holy Spirit

The world is filled with guilt-inducing stimuli: Tests, performance reviews, heated conversations with our spouses, the covers of fashion magazines and even many things with seemingly positive intent: exhortations to believe in yourself, train harder, or sermons “encouraging” you to be more kind, thoughtful and maybe drink less beer. The guilt pounds us and swirls around us – causing us to second guess ourselves, hate ourselves, and if we are still young enough, redouble our efforts to turn the ship around.

As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ, in some kind of abstract sense, swallowed all our guilt and took it on Himself, freeing us from sin. And yet we are still commanded to repent from our sins. So where do we start? Everyone, not least of all our own selves, are enthusiastically trying to alter our behavior. Where does one begin?

I believe it is worth considering the nature of our own consciousness and concentration. Our brains can really only think about one thing at a time well. Women may be better multi-taskers than men and able to hold a bit more in there at once during the day but the bottom line is that we can only address a very finite number of things with our mind at a time. This also means that we can only really repent of one thing at a time – not just in the moment of confession, but in the ongoing embodiment of that turning. During your initial conversion or coming to faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps you repented of a big list of things and then proceeded to effectively abandon many of them. That’s great, but our ongoing walk and growth in holiness is accomplished day-by-day, piece-by-piece.

So how does one discern between legitimate conviction (a particular feeling of guilt) brought about by the Holy Spirit, and the destructive accusing condemnation from Satan? How can you tell the difference between them? I believe that one key way of differentiating the source of conviction is by paying attention to how narrow the scope is. The Holy Spirit will typically deal with one thing at a time. There will be one thing obviously wrong, and relatively clear path forward to turn from that one thing of death toward life.

The devil, on the other hand, will make us feel like a complete dirtbags by pointing out twenty things at once. A laundry list of past failings is part of the mix and there is no clear way out of the mire. Hopelessness and confusion ensues if one tries to process this shotgun approach.

When the Holy Spirit urges you to repent, it is like a beam of light shining in the dark, with a promise of freedom. When the devil floods you with reminders of your sin and failing, it is like indistinct lights in the fog, making navigation worse not better. I like how these two photographs illustrate the metaphor.



I spoke about this topic last week and today a friend of mine emailed me a link to a small daily devotional Richard Exley. I’ll repeat it here as I think it gets at what I am trying to say pretty succinctly.

When I feel guilty but I don’t know why, I usually pray, “Lord, if this guilt is produced by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, show me where I have sinned.” If what I am experiencing is conviction the Lord is quick to identify my transgression so He can deal with it. God takes no pleasure in making us squirm. His only reason for convicting us is to deliver us from evil. The accuser, on the other hand, simply wants to condemn us.

“Godly sorrow (conviction) brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow (condemnation) brings death.
— 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)

Lord Jesus, make me resistant to the condemnation of the enemy even as you make me sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.

In reading some of Lesslie Newbigin’s work on theology of Mission recently, I came across a story about a missionary to Uganda in the early 20th century. He saw many people respond to the gospel but was personally very disconcerted by the polygamy that was practiced in the culture and frequently preached against it – urging the new Christian men to lay it aside. It didn’t have much effect though because what the Holy Spirit was speaking to THEM was conviction about the slaves or indentured servants in their community. Their abuse of the poor was what God was pricking their hearts about – not their multiple wives. Now in time, over the next generation, much reform happened and the practice of polygamy receded too. But right at that moment, the preacher had to realize that he was getting in the way of what the Spirit was doing and that he should focus his attention elsewhere. Repentance of one thing at a time changes over time.

Paul was able to say at the end of his life that he was “the chief of sinners” because he was so keenly aware of his own continuing and perpetual shortcomings – that is, stuff he hadn’t repented of yet. He, Saint Paul, died clinging to certain sins. So will we. “You can’t just think your way to rightly ordered loves.” says James K.A. Smith. One reason for this is that we don’t have enough time and we can only do one thing at a time. But we can also find comfort in this. Jesus is not asking us to do more than one thing at a time and He has already reconciled us to God regardless. The voice yelling at you to “FIX ALL THE THINGS!” but offering no clarity on what that should look like need not be heeded. The quiet and persistent voice of the Spirit is to be listened to and obeyed.