Repentance is often messy. It is messy because in our humanness our repentance is mixed. In true sorrow of heart we might cry out to God and yet have too low a view of God and too grand a view of our abilities. Perhaps that is why the Puritans spoke of repenting of our repentance.
The Israelites of old were recipients of great light concerning the character, power, and works of God. He made himself known to them, provided for all of their needs, led them by day and night, and gave to them abundantly (Psalm 78:1-16). Yet they were cowardly, covenant breakers, stubborn, rebellious and forgetful. They doubted God, complained against God, and even challenged God (9-20).
The wrath of God was stirred up because His people did not believe in Him (22). The root of sin is always unbelief. God's wrath was displayed in giving the Israelites what they craved (22-29) and then killing their strongest and bringing down their promising young men (31).
Take a deep breath. Be quiet for a moment. Get ready for this next statement. In spite of all this, they still sinned: despite his wonders, they did not believe (32). God had made himself known to Israel. He had cared for and provided for all of their needs. He led them through dangers, toils and snares. He showed great patience before his wrath was kindled. Then he displayed his wrath. Yet, they still sinned.
The insanity of the sinner is that he thinks that he can constantly receive good things from God's hand, ignore God's existence in any meaningful way, break covenant with God, challenge God with demands, receive God's wrath, and go on sinning.
God is not mocked. He brought more death and more terror to Israel (32-33). Finally they awakened. Finally their attention was arrested. The sinner will keep digging and digging and digging a pit into which he will eventually fall. God will bring trouble to the unrepentant. He is willing to bring hardship, rain terror down, and even kill. He is not mocked. He is God.
When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly. They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer. But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant (34-38).
Here is messy repentance. On the one hand the Israelites sought God earnestly in their repentance. They remembered God. Yet their repentance was mingled with flattery, lying, and a heart that was not steadfast. Perhaps they imagined that they were more repentant than they were. Perhaps they thought that this time they meant what they said. Perhaps they were too filled with themselves and were not saturated with the greatness, glory, and holiness of God. Whatever the case, their repentance was messy and not very deep.
Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, an wind that passes and comes not again (38-39).
God displayed staggering mercy to Israel. Even though their repentance was half-hearted, God displayed compassion. Israel's repentance is not an example on how to repent, but it does serve as a powerful backdrop to highlight the astonishing mercy of God to those who will turn to him.
Do not fail to hear the Word of God! God is holy. God is not mocked. Sin is more awful than you could ever imagine. God is willing and able to display his wrath in powerful demonstrations of terror. Do not play around with sin. Stop digging a pit that will serve as your grave. Fear God!
You may wonder if God receive such a sinner as you? Perhaps you don't feel sorry enough. Perhaps you know that your repentance is half-hearted and mixed with sin. What should you do? Grieve the lack of purity in your heart. Yet do not delay. God is merciful to sinners. Turn to God now. Seek him earnestly. Remember that God is your redeemer and your rock. It may be that God will display great compassion to you, forgive your sin, and restrain his anger. His mercy is a staggering mercy.
Perhaps you are wondering about the repentance of a friend. Perhaps their repentance seems mixed. Perhaps you question the sincerity of their tears. Remember God's mercy. Remember that they, like you, are but flesh. Remember that God showed great patience and mercy to Israel in their repentance. Pray for those who repent. God is the judge and he discerns the hearts of men. Don't quickly cast away one whose repentance you doubt.
It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God that many who seem to be subjects of it are guilty of great imprudence and irregularities in their conduct. We are to consider that the end for which God pours out his Spirit is to make men holy, and not to make them politicians. Jonathan Edwards in The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.
Edwards was saying, in essence, that repentance is not always clean-cut. And yet the Spirit of God may be at work in the heart of the one who still displays imprudence and irregularities in their conduct. Let us not be too quick to judge that a person's repentance is so faulty that God is not at work in their repentance. Let us not diminish the staggering mercy of God. But let us also not think that because God is merciful that we might continue in sin. Grace does not teach us to sin but to deny sin and to pursue God.
Repentance is messy indeed. Nevertheless you must repent now. God's mercy is staggering. His mercy can reach into the worst of situations, even yours.