Where do we find the grace for repentance? It is not in hating sin, as if we could find within ourselves the strength to resist temptation. So much of our spiritual effort is wasted in prideful self-righteousness, and in the worldly despair which is rooted in self-centred shame that we are not as good as we think we are. Of course we should hate sin, but it does not provide the necessary spiritual energy for us to succeed in overcoming temptation. And it provides a temptation itself to believe that with a little more effort we can become holy in our own strength.
It is very easy for us to gain a little self-discipline and yet to have made no lasting progress because all of our effort is done in our own strength and according to our own will, and is filled with a sense of pride at what we have achieved. Satan, the enemy of our souls, is very happy to lessen the temptation he applies in one area of our life if he hopes to ensnare us in a much worse bondage to self-will and pride, and to a judgemental attitude towards those who still struggle in the face of temptation we now mistakenly believe we have conquered.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, it was the Pharisee who appeared to himself and to others to have become righteous, but who had not yet even begun on that journey. While it was the tax collector, who still struggled, whose prayers were heard, because he cried out – God, have mercy on me, a sinner. When we believe that it is enough to try and hate sin, we will be easily deceived and fall into many other sins which we do not even notice. There is no spiritual power in hatred, it is a temporal and passionate energy that will fail, or lead us astray.
At the beginning of course, even a fear of punishment might lead us to avoid sin as best we can. But true holiness is found in union with God in love, not in merely avoiding bad thoughts and deeds in our own strength. Holiness is the consecration of heart, mind, will, strength and energy to God. Hatred of sin, generated by our own effort, cannot bring about such a consecration. If fear of punishment were the means to overcome sin, then the perfect holiness which God asks of us would require a complete and absolute fear of God, but the Scripture teaches us that perfect love casts out fear, and that there is no fear in love. But at the beginning, when we are being woken from a state of sleep about spiritual things, then the awareness of the majesty and almighty power of God is often present to make us think seriously about our lives.
Yet, it is only love which has the lasting power to transfigure the most broken, unclean, reckless and sinful soul. When the heart turns in love towards God as our Heavenly Father, it is filled with a godly sorrow at all that has been thought and done in the darkness, and in resistance and rejection of love. When we turn in love to God with godly sorrow, everything begins to change, and this is the meaning of repentance. It does not mean feeling as miserable as possible. It means changing within the heart and mind. It is love which brings about this change. The little love we offer God, is magnified and multiplied as we make this sacrifice. We receive to overflowing the love of God in return.
Love has the power to transform our lives and to set us on the path to true holiness and complete obedience, because it is love which is eternal and which is itself the means and experience of union with God. The more we truly experience the love of God the more greatly do we desire it, and the more we truly desire this union in love with God, the more we experience it. This love is not a shallow emotion, or sentimentality, but is the giving of our ourselves wholeheartedly to God.
We do not put our effort into hating sin, so that at some point we might come to love God. Rather, sinful and weak as we are, we offer ourselves in love and repentance to God, and it is the experience of this mutual love in increasing measure which reinforces and sustains our rejection of temptation to sin. How can we sin when we receive such love? Sin is to turn to the darkness and to the cold chill of love of self. The love of God is an abundant experience of life. It is the thought of losing such an experience of life and light and love which draws us to desire God more and more. And the love we offer, and the greater love we receive, is the spiritual energy that allows us to resist sin.