The nations of the Western world are religious — at least according to statistics. Many people profess a deep interest in Christianity. Religion has even become fashionable for many people in America and Britain. And with the advent of the "Jesus movement" about three years ago, many young people are showing an interest in religion — perhaps for the first time. Yet our "Christian" societies are bearing dubious fruit! Do you know why?
Why with all this interest in religion isn't our society becoming more law-abiding? Why aren't good fruits being borne of our religious beliefs? Part of the answer was revealed a few years ago in a surprising report in the Los Angeles Times: "But increasingly people are becoming disillusioned with churches — so many conflicting, confusing denominations. Religion seems so unrelated to real life. Today many people are disillusioned because they can't see the difference between the churchgoer and nonchurchgoer; between the believer and the nonbeliever" (emphasis mine throughout article). Man wants religion, but he wants it his way. He doesn't want to give up the way he lives. At the same time he doesn't want to pay the penalty for living that way. As a result, people by the millions pour into their churches each week, donating time to help in worthy causes in the vain hope that God will accept their "good deeds" in place of their obedience to Him. Yet for the most part their way of living doesn't change. For some, church attendance is actually a means of "making up" for their shortcomings and sins. It is something they do without changing. It is an act of penance rather than repentance. Simple religious interest hasn't seemed to have made any difference in our way of life. What possible good does it do to belong to any denomination if no one can tell the difference between the actions or fruits of a churchgoer and an agnostic? Jesus Christ said: "Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). The Bible speaks of a true Christian as being a light to the world. Apparently modern-day "Christianity," like so many of our cities, is suffering a power shortage. The result is the same — a "brown-out"! The light has grown so dim as to be barely able to be seen.
Church membership in the United States continues to reach new plateaus with over 60% of the population, over 132,000,000 people, claiming church membership. It has been reported that 40% of United States' adults can be found in church every weekend. Yet, in spite of church membership figures, crime since 1960 has jumped nearly 175%, while the population has increased by only 11%. The annual cost of crime in the United States is now conservatively estimated to be over 30 billion dollars. When considered in relation to our population growth, crime is increasing 15.8 times faster than our population! And this is not the result of more accurate reporting methods. This is the fruit of our "Christian society." Unbelievable? Incredible? Astounding? The facts are down in black and white — easily accessible to anyone. Today's religious interest doesn't go very deep. It doesn't affect the way most people live. Why?
What is the answer? What does religion have to do with the way you live? For many it means very little. Listen to this: "During the years of our greatest growth we produced a generation of anemic Christians, brought up on a few gospel truths captured in platitudes, slogans and shallow Bible study, in an atmosphere where we left the impression that dedication could be measured by the extent of activity in a marathon of somewhat meaningless meetings" (Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1969). Christianity is distant and out of touch with the perplexing and knotty problems of our modem society. The distance between professed faith and daily performance is astronomical. Today's religious interest is reflected largely on paper. It only shines out from the church roll books. It doesn't show its light as it should in human lives. The problem lies with the people themselves. Jesus Christ said — in speaking of the religious leaders and people of His day: "... This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:6-7). People attend evangelistic campaigns and talk of all uniting in the brotherhood of Christianity. But very few seem to want to live the way Jesus Christ commanded. Most are willing to honor Him with their lips, but they don't want to do the things He taught. The worldwide interest in religion is too often a cheap, shabby facade which serves to disguise a lack of personal integrity and morality. The basic problem is that as nations, and all too frequently even as individuals, there is a lack of genuine deep repentance!
If an increase in the interest in religion around the world doesn't show repentance, what does? If the great evangelistic campaigns aren't producing it, where does it come from? What does it mean? The dictionary definition of repentance is: "To feel self-reproach, compunction or contrition for past conduct, to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one's life for the better" (The American College Dictionary). The Bible definition means all of that and much more! Godly repentance means to stop sinning, to turn and go thy other way — to change your way of life. It's not always easy to say, "I'm sorry." But it's even harder to mean it. Godly repentance has to come from the heart. In speaking of Ephraim (identified as modern Britain), God says: "And they have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds... they rebel against me. Though I have bound and strengthened their arms, yet do they imagine mischief against me. They return, but not to the most High..." (Hosea 7:14-16). Your, Bible says people have made an outward show of returning to Him or repenting, but they haven't done it with their hearts. Ephraim's repentance, and for that matter that of the rest of the world, is the outward, superficial, worldly repentance with no real sincerity or deep feeling.
What is it you should repent of or feel sorrow for? To some it is one thing and to others — from another society or religion — it is something altogether different. But what does GOD say we should repent of! It is sin we are commanded to repent of (Luke 24:47). And what is sin? "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (I John 3:4). Sin is breaking God's law — not human customs! Any time you break or disobey anyone of the holy, righteous commandments of God, you have sinned. You must repent. No one is excluded. No man, woman or child has ever lived who hasn't disobeyed and broken God's law (Rom. 3:10, 23). Therefore every one of you needs to repent deeply and bitterly with all your heart. You need to turn to God for forgiveness. You need to begin to obey Him and keep His commandments — all His commandments — with zeal. For "He that saith, I know him [who says, 'I am a Christian'], and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (I John 2:4). We can't just drum up the deep feeling of abhorrence for our sins an4 our own utter wretchedness. It has to come from God. God grants repentance! "Or despiseth thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4.) II Timothy 2:25 tells us, "... if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth." It is God who helps us to see our own wretchedness and shortcomings. He opens our minds and starts us on -the way toward repentance.
There are definite steps to take if you sincerely desire to repent and serve God. They are simple steps. Anyone who will follow them can be guaranteed he will find the true God and the deep repentance that God requires. Your Bible names dozens of men who are going to be in the Kingdom of God. Such men as David, Daniel and other prophets of God are guaranteed salvation and a place in His Kingdom. They found how to reach the Creator of the universe. Their example will help us to see how we might attain the same goal. They all had one very essential thing in common. As soon as they realized God was displeased with them or their nation's ways, they set out to correct it. But how can you know when the Father in heaven is displeased? How do you know when any father, who really loves his children and has their welfare at heart, is displeased? "Chastise your son, while there is still hope of him, and do not let him run to ruin" (Prov. 19:18, Moffatt translation). Our heavenly Father many times begins to deal with us and bring us to repentance through chastening. Often He allows financial problems, family problems, sickness, or other serious situations to develop in our lives which will force us to realize our need of Him. These very things have occurred in your life, but chances are you didn't appreciate them. These trials are proof of the Father's love for each one of. us. Notice Hebrews 12:6-8: "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?"
Instead of fighting these problems in our own strength, we need to learn the lesson God is teaching us. We need to begin to seek Him. He doesn't need us. We do need Him! Daniel was inspired to record his own reactions in such a case as this for our instruction. "And 1 set my face unto the Eternal God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes" (Dan. 9:3). Nehemiah's example is also recorded for us. When he found that his nation which had returned to the Holy Land was in affliction and reproach, here's what he did: "And it came to pass, when 1 heard these words, that 1 sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven" (Neh. 1:4). He immediately set out to draw close to God. He didn't do it in a halfhearted, lackadaisical, matter-of-fact way. He set himself to find God and His will by prayer and fasting. These men earnestly desired to find God's will. They were desirous of doing whatever was required to draw close to Him and receive His forgiveness. They were even willing to do without food and water to demonstrate their sincere desire to know God's way. Hard as it is to say, "I'm sorry," it is even more difficult to mean it with all your heart. The earnest supplication of God through prayer and fasting shows Him you mean business. He doesn't want a temporary, fleeting repentance which is brought about by an emotional appeal or due to the pressures of those around you. Salvation is a personal matter between you and your God. But it has to be on His terms. In the days of ancient Israel, God told King Solomon exactly what steps to follow if he found God's displeasure on his nation. These same steps apply to us today and forever (Heb. 13:8). He doesn't change. So if we will apply these steps in our everyday lives, He will answer just as He told Solomon He would. Read these steps, this formula for repentance, for yourself in II Chronicles 7:12-14. "And the Eternal appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice. If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; if my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." The steps are so simple, so clear and plain. What does it mean to humble yourself? How do you go about it? Exactly the same way Daniel and Nehemiah did. David explains in Psalm 35:13 how to humble yourself. "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom." Occasional fasting shows our earnestness and sincerity in seeking God and adds impetus to the prayers we raise to Him.
Prayer and fasting aren't the only requirements in seeking God. If you will read back over the examples of Daniel and Nehemiah as well as many of the other prophets of God, you will notice that in every case they freely acknowledged their own sins and shortcomings. It takes a deeply sincere man to say, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23-24). If we are earnestly seeking God and His way, this is the attitude we will be reflecting. We will freely admit our own sins and shortcomings and be earnestly importuning God to show us the right way. Jeremiah said: "0 Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. o Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing" (Jer. 10:23-24). We as individuals do not know how to live. Once we begin to learn that lesson, and look to God to show us how to live and how to change our lives, we are on our way to real repentance. The steps are simple. Yet it is not easy to completely give of yourself, to admit your own faults and sincerely ask for God's forgiveness.
The people of this world outwardly follow many of these steps and yet fall short in the final, most important of all the steps — turning from their wicked ways. So many people of this day and age profess to be repentant — profess Christianity — and yet still live in all the wretchedness of their sinful ways. So, finally, one of the most important of all the steps in coming to true repentance is to stop sinning! All too often our repentance is the worldly repentance spoken of in II Corinthians 7:10. What we really need to come to see and understand is the kind of repentance God desires .... turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn to the Eternal your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil" (Joel 2:12-13). No, God doesn't want the worldly kind of repentance which is manifested by a trip down the sawdust trail. No, He doesn't just want your name on the membership rolls of some church. What God wants and what you should come to deeply desire is to sincerely acknowledge your sins and ask for forgiveness. God wants you to say, "I'm sorry" — and mean it! He wants you to repent of breaking, and to begin obeying, His law.