To Repent is to Re-Aim

In high school, Molly and I had a physics teacher who likened God’s love to a vector. A vector is defined by Merriam Webster as “a quantity that has magnitude and direction,” both qualities that can be applied to God’s love to help us understand it better.  In that physics class, we represented vectoral forces (friction, gravity, etc.) with little arrows whose size indicated magnitude and whose orientation described direction.

I never forgot this analogy. It’s imperfect, namely because one could say that God’s love is infinite and cannot be limited to one size or direction. But it helped me visualize human interaction with God. Recently I’ve begun to think that God’s love isn’t the only force that can be described as a vector. Our human desires and attention can also be pictured as one big vector of worship, and we choose where to aim it.

I believe that every human has a sense of emptiness inside of them– deep desires to know and be known, to love and be loved, to have joy. Most of life is spent trying to satisfy those desires and fill our inner emptiness. Relationships, success, money and recognition are common things we look to for fullness. Looking to any of these earthly things is like pointing the vector of our deepest human longings at the finite and fallen targets all around us. The desires themselves are not bad, but when mis-aimed, they can lead to idolatry and harm.

Indeed, some of life’s greatest disappointments and deepest hurts occur when we aim our vectors horizontally and fail to receive the fullness we need. Hopelessness can come when we’ve aimed again and again but have been disappointed each time. In Union With Christ, Rankin Wilbourne writes, “Everything we do… the good things or the bad things, every virtue or vice, we do for love. We are lovers. We are creatures of desire. It’s simply a question of where that desire is directed… sin was not the breaking of rules so much as my misdirected love.”

For me, the past months have been one long lesson in the insufficiency of the horizontal, mostly through a lot of disappointment and frustration. I tend to compartmentalize my life into two categories: relationships and vocation. A great deal of my Fall was spent growing frustrated at other peoples’ inability to fill my sense of emptiness. God, in His grace, faithfully reminded me that only relationship with Him is enough. I began to taste His sweet sufficiency, that He is indeed better.

Yet the human heart is stubborn and forgetful, and the vector of my longings easily drifted off-target. So even after learning that no relationship could fill me, and after experiencing fullness in Christ, I eventually slipped back into aiming horizontally. I began to look to that second category– vocational aspirations– for joy. Right before Christmas, my summer plans fell into place and I knew for sure that I will be returning to Ethiopia in May. The anticipation of two months where I would again taste the work I hope to eventually do permanently was enough to make me think that calling (or a change of location, or adventure, or immersion in missional communities) would be ultimately fulfilling.

Of course, it wasn’t, and after a couple weeks of daydreaming about the summer I realized I still felt empty. Hopeless, even, because I had begun to run out of life compartments to aim at. After some honest journaling and reminders from Scripture, I realized with striking clarity that my aim had slipped and I had elevated vocation to be a savior it was never meant to be.

My failure to keep my desires aimed at Christ was only clear retrospectively. As I drifted off-target and eventually found myself in discontent, I wasn’t really aware that it was happening. I think that idolatry often begins this way; only once we find ourselves feeling empty and dissatisfied do we realize that we must fix our aim.

If misdirected love is the root of sin, then to repent (to turn from sin and back towards God) is to re-aim our desires vertically, towards Jesus.

There are a couple of specific truths that I ought to highlight. The first is that desires– the vectors being aimed– are not bad in and of themselves. It is not a sin to long to be married, or to want to do well in school, or to desire meaningful vocation. Many such desires are God-given and beautiful.

The second truth is that horizontal targets are also not bad in and of themselves (most of the time). A dating relationship, money, a good grade in a class, or a particular hobby are totally fine things, and while they may involve fallen people or systems, their existence is not objectively problematic. Most often, what we aim our affections at are good. And this is why they make such deceptive idols.

The deceptive nature of horizontal targets– and the ease with which our aim constantly drifts– leads to the third truth, which is that we will continually find ourselves needing to re-aim. In our fallenness, it is not our natural tendency to look vertically for fulfillment, even though that is exactly what we were created for.

As frustrating as it can be to face our inability to fix our worship on Jesus, God is never frustrated because we are covered by Gospel grace. Repentance is not a call to try harder or better to please God; instead, it is an opportunity to recognize sin and fall at Jesus’ feet. By grace, we can rest in His atoning sacrifice and trust in His sufficiency to fill us going forward. In the end, only the Holy Spirit awakens us to our misdirected desires and empowers us to re-aim, and we never run out of chances to do so.

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