I have often struggled to understand the concept of asking God for forgiveness. I know it is a command (I John 1:9), but I also know that even before we ask we have been forgiven. This truth is demonstrated within scripture: in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-33); in various verses like Psalm 103, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit” (2-4a); and in Colossians 2:13-14, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing to the cross.”
Recently, I read in Brennan Manning’s book, Ragamuffin Gospel, two paragraphs that clarified the concept of asking God for forgiveness. . Here they are, in their entirety; I hope it encourages you the way it has me.
“When I was a little boy I had a naïve idea that when I went to confession, God was frowning on me because I had been bad. As soon as I confessed my sins, God would begin to smile again. Somehow my confession implied a change in God. How absurd! My confession only implies a change in me.
“Now I understand things differently. More like this. You and I are standing in the middle of a spotlight on the platform of a church; the rest of the church is in darkness, but we are in bright light. To me this scene is a good image of ragamuffins living in a state of grace. Now, suppose that you or I commit a grave, deliberate sin. What happens? We step aside into shadows, but the light remains shining. God’s love never changes—we have simply chose to step away from it. When we repent, we come back into the light of God’s love, which has always been there.”
So how does this “stepping back into the light” happen? God’s kindness leads us there (Romans 2:4). The work of the Holy Spirit is to remind us of God’s kindness that is still shinning on us even in our sin. As He does this, our hearts are drawn back into the truth of our reality and ultimately we are moved to repentance. Repentance is not primarily about our step towards God, but about living in the light about His running towards us. I have often heard that repentance is a changing of your mind, that it is an agreeing with God that we are in fact sinner. However, I think that there is also an element of agreement that we often forget. Part of repentance is remembering that we are loved by our Abba Father, that we are perfectly loved (period); agreeing with God that His love for us never changes even when we were loving everything and anything more than we love Him. In this agreeing that we are simultaneously a sinner and beloved we fall in love with our Father and run after him with zeal renewed.