“ ‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments’ ” (Joel 2:12,13).
JOEL’S MESSAGE FROM GOD, LIKE THAT OF ALL THE PROPHETS, WAS THAT THE PEOPLE SHOULD TURN AWAY FROM THE SINS THAT HAD CUT THEM OFF FROM GOD. Even when God’s long-delayed judgment had fallen upon them, it was possible, as long as life lasted, for them to repent and be restored to God’s favor and blessing.
True repentance from sin is a matter of serious sincerity — much more than a quick “Sorry about that; I guess I could have done better.” With Israel, God pleaded for deep sorrow: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” Hearts touched by the knowledge of sin will grieve in a way that shows up in things like weeping and fasting. But it is the heart that is the primary concern. An outward show of sorrow would mean nothing to God if the heart was not penitent. So God said to the wayward, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”
This does not mean that outward manifestations of godly sorrow are unimportant. The saying in Joel is an example of the familiar “not-but” construction found in the Scriptures: “Not [this], but [that].” When, for example, Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27), He was not denying the importance of working for our physical food; rather, He was giving priority to our spiritual concerns. So it is with repentance. Outward expressions of grief are not to be suppressed, but it is in our hearts, first of all, that God looks for sorrow.
So how, exactly, do we rend our hearts? We do it by confronting the awfulness of our sin, without self-pity or any evasion of responsibility. We grieve how we’ve selfishly rebelled against God’s love. And we yearn — we weep — to be with Him in eternity, whatever we may have lost by our sins in the here and now.
“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms . . . This process of surrender — this movement full speed astern — is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death” (C. S. Lewis).