One of the most striking and unexpected lessons I’ve learned over the last decade or so is that repentance is hard.
Initially this came as something of a surprise. Like most people, I used to cling to the instinctive idea that we’re basically in control of our lives, that we can make rational choices about which of our desires to follow and which should be resisted, and so on. But a few years of experience – both of helping other people to deal with their sinful, foolish and destructive habits, and in dealing with my own – have kicked that idea firmly into the long grass.
It turns out that we’re creatures of habit, and that old habits die hard. In our earliest childhood, we are busily (and of course unknowingly) ingraining patterns of life and attitudes of thought that will very likely either bless or curse us for the rest of our days.
We learn habits of work or laziness, and habits of concentration or distraction.
We learn whether to be content with what we have, or whether we’ll always be wanting more.
We learn whether we’ll cheerfully follow instructions from those who know better than us, or whether we’ll be constantly kicking up a fuss every time someone asks us to do something we don’t immediately want to do.
We learn whether we’re going to be willing to put in long hours of (often) painful or exhausting work in order to achieve a long-term result that’ll be worth achieving, or whether we’re going to demand instant gratification and avoid putting in a single ounce of effort that doesn’t produce an immediate return.
All these habits, and many more, are firmly ingrained well before we reach adulthood, and often before we reach our teenage years.
The book of Proverbs puts it well:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
Or equally (and I’m pretty sure that the Hebrew text could equally well be translated like this, too, giving an alarming double-edged meaning):
“Train up a child in the way he would [like to] go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
In short, though it’s not easy to raise a child to be a faithful and fruitful follower of Jesus Christ, it’s a whole lot easier to do that than to fix our own chaotic, dissipated lives once we reach adulthood. Raising a young child may at times feel like herding geese, but disciplining an unruly teenager is like trying to put a collar on a hungry polar bear, and repenting as an adult is like trying to turn a container ship.
Two immediate implications follow from this.
First, the task of raising children is incredibly important. If you’re a parent, then however hard it is, however many sacrifices it takes, however much you might feel like giving up and hoping that “He’ll grow out of it” (he won’t, by the way; he’ll just grow further into it), keep going. Don’t give up. Every ounce of effort you expend teaching a stroppy 3-year-old that prompt, cheerful obedience is not the same as grudging, resentful disobedience will save you buckets of tears a couple of decades years down the track.
Second, the difficulties that you will face as an adult trying to grow in godliness are absolutely formidable, and must not be underestimated. It is possible to grow in godliness once you reach your twenties, or thirties, of forties, or even beyond. It’s even possible to rid yourself of some of those ruinously destructive habits that you allowed yourself to indulge throughout your teenage years and which have now turned you into (for example) a discontented, whinging victim who simply blames someone else for everything; or a lazy, undisciplined layabout who thinks the world owed you a living; or whatever your particular pathology is. God cann raise the dead; he can even change you. But you should expect this to involve an immense amount of effort on your part, and a determined, prayerful dependence on the grace of God. You will not drift into godliness. You must decide that you want it more than anything else; and then you must pray like crazy, probably for a very long time; and then you must expect to still be working at it with an inhuman effort several years down the track.
We’ll let the apostle Paul have the last word:
“Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)