"You've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jeremiah 27c GWT). This is what God says to His people through Jeremiah. It's a recurring theme in God's messages through Jeremiah to Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). Judah had abandoned the living God for lifeless idols. It wasn't just misplaced worship or foolish religion, it was accompanied with gross immorality and perversion of justice. The behavior of the leaders and people was atrocious. But this wasn't God's main issue.
Repentance is not about behavior, but renewed relationship. It's not that bad behavior should be ignored or overlooked, but it is secondary. It should change as a result of changed relationship, not the other way around. When changed behavior is the focus of repentance, God's intent for it is misplaced. Although God held His people responsible for their bad behavior, His great lament was their shunning Him. In Jeremiah 2:13, God says the people had committed two evils and number one is forsaking Him.
Going back to the Garden of Eden and looking forward, relationship has always been central to God. When Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent's temptation, God goes looking for them because He knows something is wrong. The entire story of redemption begins there. The classic picture of repentance is given in the third of three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Son (or Prodigal Son). The climax is seeing the lost son return to his father. The son's focus is on his own sin, the father looks past the son's sin and filthiness to embrace him and celebrate.
However, we still tend to focus on sin—our own or that of others, and it's lingering effect. That's the picture of the brooding elder son in the parable. We want forgiveness and justice, and often have difficulty accepting forgiveness, or as it's often put, "forgiving ourselves." Sadly, when we focus on our own sin, how others have sinned, and the ripple effect of sin—we lose sight of the purpose of forgiveness. Forgiveness is granted by God for restoration of relationship, not a means of satisfying divine justice. Of course, things must be made right, but righteousness itself is relational, not a theological concept. Why was the father (in the parable) celebrating? Because, "My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found" (Luke 15:24 GWT).
Repentance is not about good behavior, but restored relationship. As King David requested in his own prayer of repentance, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12). Repentance is not about "turning over a new leaf," as if making a New Year's resolution. It's about returning to God. There are countless examples of this point throughout the Bible (although someone has probably counted each one ;-}). Unfortunately, much well-intentioned teaching and preaching has focused on changed behavior as the mark of true repentance. How about John the Baptist's rebuke at the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12 GWT), you might ask? Changed behavior is the fruit of genuine repentance, not its essence.
Redemption is not about forgiveness, but reconciliation between God and man. Repentance is about returning to God. As God says, "you've turned your backs, not your faces, to me." God wants people to turn their faces to Him, not their backs. He's not interested in what we can do to make things right, because He knows it will fall short and be short-lived. Repentance is not remorse, nor emotion, or promises of better behavior. It's a change of heart leading us back to God, as shown by the lost son in the parable. Repentance is not behavior modification, "changing our ways" or "making a 180º turn" on our own, but returning to God, the Father, and receiving His mercy and grace. Once relationship is restored (yes, through forgiveness on God's behalf), then true repentance results in a changed life. When our face is turned to God, our back is turned on sin.
I believe there is no true redemption without genuine repentance. But the essence of repentance is returning to God regardless of the personal cost. The good news is God has covered the cost on the Cross. Our work is turning our face and trust back to God, not changing our behavior. That is a futile effort—doomed for failure. If you're trying to be a "good Christian"—stop it! But if you desire turning towards God—go for it!
My wife and I saw the power of redemption when disciplining our children. Once it was clear what was wrong, our children's heads dropped and their faces reflected sadness. Then correction was applied and a new path of behavior (and attitude) was discussed. Once things were settled, the result was freedom. True repentance ought to bring freedom, not brooding. Back to the parable in Luke, the father celebrated with the restored son, while the elder son brooded. It's your choice—brooding or rejoicing. I prefer joy over whining, any day of the week.