Several middle school students I once ministered to competed in regional debate tournaments twice a year. They were well prepared on the topic of debate: they knew the rebuttals and oratory tactics to land their points, and how to demonstrate the logical flaws in their opponents’ arguments. Neatly dressed and armed with little index cards of research—and cut-throat for winning the competitions—these students were preparing for debating and defeating contrasting world-views.
When it was time for a tournament, I would famously offer any student debating in the competition $20 in hard cash if they would, in the midst of their debate, stand up, point at the other side, and yell “YOU’RE WRONG!” and then quietly sit down again, thus ending the debate.
Whether they wanted to avoid the scolding and potential embarrassment of losing the tournament for such a brash tactic, or whether they were unsure of my ability to pay, I don’t know. But no one ever took the risk.
Hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” is an awakening. I for one don’t like it. But I need to hear it. “You’re wrong!” forces me to look at my situation or point of view and assess where I may have missed a turn. Sometimes, being told I’m wrong leads me to hunker down into my convictions and stand my ground. No matter what, it’s always an awakening moment. There’s a blessing in being wrong.
The poet of Psalm 120 had a moment of awakening: “In my distress I called out to the Lord.” The weight of discovering he’d been wrong was startling and traumatic; it crushed his soul. He felt misery and anguish, a blend he called “distress.” Before we can appreciate the psalmist’s awakening, we have to understand his story.
Three times a year the Hebrews were required to leave their homes and journey to Jerusalem holy days of festival celebration. Their pilgrimage was an embodiment of the life of faith. Moving to Jerusalem was “ascending the hill of the Lord,” all the while asking, “Who can do this?” (Ps. 15; 24). As they traveled, a liturgy took shape to remind and provide “a guidebook and map” for the journey of faith, as Eugene Peterson would say. This liturgy was captured in fifteen Psalms—Psalms 120-134—affectionately known as the “Psalms of Ascent.”
Every so often I realize that an important date is so quickly approaching that unless I shift into high gear, there is simply no way I’ll be prepared. I’ve never waited to buy Christmas presents until Christmas Eve, but there have been a few close calls for birthdays and other holidays. The thought of missing the date gives me a much-needed awakening.
I imagine there were some busy Jewish families that would share that moment of sheer fright when they realized the festival was merely a day or two away. Pulling together a few essentials and getting out of the house was hectic and hurried. The frustration of living so far away and making the journey is heard in the psalmist’s cries: “I have stayed in Meshech . . . I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” as if to say, “I am so far from the city, so far from God’s place, so far away from being who I should be.”
The journey to Jerusalem was hard and perhaps painful, but necessary. Realizing our distance from God can get us moving. We hear “YOU’RE WRONG!” and realize we’re so far in the wrong direction that unless we get moving right now, we’ll never catch up. Welcome to repentance.
Becoming aware of his distance from God was the only way the psalmist could be changed. Awakening to his reality was the only way he could be moved. This is exactly what God wants for us.
The Refreshment of Repentance
Repentance is described by many as an emotion. We often hear of repentance in terms of sorrow, anguish, or contrition. While the awakened sense of wrongness that comes with repentance does bring true sorrow, repentance isn’t merely an emotional response. In the psalmist’s case, there is anger at his own decisions, disgust over his apathy, and desire for a new life. But his emotions don’t tell us he’s repenting. His actions do.
The singular verb, “called,” of Psalm 120 tells us how to respond to God when awakened to our sin. It directs us to action. After hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” he realized the sinfulness of his hometown had worn off on him, and he called out for help: “In my distress I called to the Lord.”
Left to himself, he’d always be stuck, always be distant from God, always among those who love war. That was the painful realization of his heart and soul. He longed for peace, for justice, and for nearness to God.
Repentance must be an action for us too. We have restitution to make, changes to implement, steps to take. But repentance cannot and will not be real and refreshing until we make the first step—crying out for help.
So many self-help systems are geared around willpower; washing your face, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and other simple strategies. But growing near to God though takes another path—helplessness. The false notion that “God helps those who help themselves” falls short. God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so they cry out to him in desperation.
The refreshment of repentance is not in the actions we take or the sorrow we feel. The refreshment of repentance starts with the awareness that “YOU’RE WRONG!” coupled with the cry “GOD, HELP!” We can’t fix our wrongness but we can cry out for help.
The full opening verse of Psalm 120 speaks for the whole: “I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me.” He was wrong and weary, misguided and messy. Far from home and far from God. Yet God answered him. This is the blessing of being wrong. But it’s only for those who are aware they are wrong and need some help. God answers those who realize they’re wrong and cry out to him.
What resounding hope and help this is for stagnated and sedentary disciples like you and me! No matter how wrong we are, no matter how painful the awareness of our sinfulness, God is there to meet us when we cry out. He’s there to bring a blessing when we are wrong.
Instead of self-importance or righteousness or religious performance, all we have to offer God is a cry for his help. He meets all our weakness with all his strength. This is the promise for those of us who hear, “YOU’RE WRONG!” and answer, “Yes, it’s true! God help me!” For those who will cry out in need and desperation for help and rescue from their sin, God promises he will answer. His answer gets us moving. His grace silences the shout of “YOU’RE WRONG” and tells us “Come, home!”
What are we waiting for? The loving, open arms of the Father are open to us. Let’s allow the painful awareness of our sin to urge us to cry out for his help, and let’s start on the road to God. He’ll not only meet us on the way, but he will also bring us the whole way there.
Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and That Word Above All Earthly Powers. He writes personally at jwritebol.net. You can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.