The Inner Work of Repentance and Self-Discovery

By Mark D. Roberts

January 16, 2024

A Biblical Guide to Inner Work

Scripture — Psalm 51:1-5 (NRSV)

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy,
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.


Psalm 51 provides a striking example of a certain kind of inner work. In this psalm we see David dealing, not only with his sinful actions, but also with his sinful heart. When we have done what is wrong, we have the opportunity to do the inner work of repentance and self-discovery. But this sort of work takes courage. The Spirit of God will help us to deal honestly with both our actions and our hearts.

Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.


If you search online for definitions of “inner work,” you’ll find a wide variety of options. What all of these have in common is an understanding that inner work is something that we do inside of us, in what we call our minds, hearts, emotions, spirits, or souls. Inner work impacts outer behavior, but it’s not equivalent to our actions.

Some definitions of “inner work” emphasize the positive results. One of these reads, “Inner work is shaping your emotions, beliefs, and attitudes to create a healthier and happier version of yourself.” A similar definition states, “I define ‘inner work’ as the mastery over your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions for the purpose of creating a more harmonious and joyous life.”

Though it’s certainly possible that one result of doing inner work is greater health and joy, it would be wrong to envision inner work as an exercise in positive thinking or inner cheerleading. It’s not, for example, what the character Stuart Smalley did on Saturday Night Live when we spoke his “Daily Affirmation”: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” In fact, those who emphasize the positive results of inner work talk about our need to confront things in our lives that are not so positive, including fears, past hurts, and false beliefs.

Scripture would add to that list such things as our selfish desires and, indeed, innate tendency to sin. We see an example of this sort of inner work in Psalm 51, a psalm attributed to David that reflects his prayer after sexually assaulting a woman named Bathsheba and having her husband killed to cover up his wrongdoing. (I summarized the backstory in yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion.) In this prayer we see David doing difficult but necessary inner work, including the acknowledgment of the sinful character of his heart.

After asking God to have mercy and “blot out” his transgressions, David prays,

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me (51:3-5).

David begins with a frank confession of his sin and a recognition that God’s judgment on him is just. This is utterly unlike so many contemporary “confessions” in which the “confessors” rationalize and defend their behavior while adding that they are sorry people felt hurt. Often such “confessions” imply that the true fault lies with the thin-skinned people who were offended by what they did. David, on the contrary, owns up to what he did wrong. (This is, by the way, always a good approach to God when you’ve transgressed.)

But David goes a step further, not only by admitting his recent sin, but also by adding, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). This verse is often quoted in theological discussions of original sin. I’m not going to wade into those deep waters today. Rather, I want to point to this verse as an example of inner work. David has peered into his heart and what he has seen isn’t pretty. He recognizes that sin lives inside of him and has done so from his conception. He does this, by the way, not to somehow justify his sin by saying “Hey, I can’t help it. I was born this way.” Rather this is David’s way of moving toward saying, in effect, “Hey, I can’t help it, Lord, unless you change my heart.” We’ll get to this in next Monday’s devotion.

Today, however, I want David’s example of inner work to give me courage to look honestly into my own heart. And I want you to do the same in your own life. At some point, Spirit-inspired and thorough inner work will always include a truthful examination of our own sinfulness.

All human beings need to do this sort of thing. Leaders, in particular, need to do this if they want to lead in healthy, just, and shalom-filled ways. To cite an example from my own life, I remember a time when I was a pastor. A member of my church said some things about me behind my back. These things were both deeply hurtful and quite untrue. Now I knew I needed to approach this person directly and see if we could reconcile. But, for a while, I couldn’t do it. I preferred to withhold forgiveness in order to hurt the one who had hurt me. In time, the Lord helped me see my own sinfulness. It was only when I could pray in the mode of Psalm 51, admitting my vengeful longings to the Lord, that I was able to be set free to do the right thing in this relationship. (Reconciliation did not come quickly, but it did come in time.)

As you reflect upon David’s example of difficult inner work in Psalm 51, you may want to reflect upon the following questions.


How do you experience confessing your sins in prayer?

What helps you to be honest with God about your moral failures?

How can we deal truthfully with our sin and also see God’s image in us?


If you haven’t done so for a while, set aside some time to speak honestly with God about your specific sins as well as your sin in general.


Gracious God, thank you for the example of Psalm 51. Thank you for David’s courageous look into his own sinful soul. Thank you for how the Psalms teach us to pray with open minds and hearts.

Help me, I pray, to have the same confidence and courage that David had. I admit, Lord, that there are times I don’t want to confess my sin to you. Sometimes I don’t even want to look inside of myself to acknowledge what’s there. I need your help, Lord.

May I discover how doing the inner work of confession is a way to experience the forgiveness and restoration that comes from your grace. Amen.

Banner image by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Sacrifice God Desires.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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