Repenting of Repentance

Sometimes I think we like being hard on ourselves. It may be a British thing or it may be a human thing but the idea creeps in that to be worthwhile something must be hard and less than enjoyable. Perish the thought that something that is good for us it can’t also be fun! If it is important then it is probably really hard right? If we enjoy something then it probably can’t be good for us. We almost want to feel bad about things to validate that they are important or healthy!

At times I have observed this perspective creeps into the church world too. I have been thinking lately about one word “Repentance”. If any word makes people bad it is this word. It is good for you though right? It is definitely a very churchy word but also a very misunderstood word. The act itself of repenting is a fundamental part of both our initial and ongoing salvation (Yes, if you are a Christian, you have been saved, are being saved and will be saved!). So it seems worthwhile to have a good understanding of what it might mean and what it doesn’t mean.

All words have a habit of shifting and changing with culture (See this intriguing list).

The English word repentance didn’t exist until around 1000 years after the last parts of the New Testament were written. A modern online English dictionary gives the following definitions for repentance:

1. deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.

2.  regret for any past action.

Now most of you will know the New Testament was written in greek. The greek word most often translated into English as ‘repentance‘ is ‘metanoia’. The best definition of this word is simply:

To change one’s mind

I hope you can see the difference here! The English word unfortunately carries with it the old idea of doing penance. Often penance was shown by inflicting pain on yourself to show that you were really sorry for what you had done. A really unhealthy belief.

The word repentance was used in some of the earliest English bible translations and has ended up sticking. Despite the fact it brings with it some unhealthy baggage.

A more biblical perspective on repentance is to understand it as changing your mind. The context in which it is used determines the specifics. When Jesus said ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near’ he meant that the presence of God’s rule and reign should cause people to change their thinking and perspective on life. Often the context of salvation means to change your mind about Jesus and see that he is the Son of God.

So I hope you can see that ‘Repent’ does not mean “feel really sorry for what you did, in hopes you won’t do it again”. It means to change the way you think.

I find it helpful to think of Jesus’s words “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The word truth here includes the meaning ‘reality’. In other words Jesus was saying “I have come to reveal reality as it truly is”. When you discover this reality it will set you free in so many ways. The reality of who Jesus is, the reality of how the world works, the reality of sin and the reality of salvation.

In other words God is the only person with a perfect grasp on truth and reality. Simply put to repent is to line our thinking up with his.

To repent from sin is to change the way we think about what sin is and it’s impact. We do all feel bad when we get caught doing something we shouldn’t be doing. That however is not really repentance and whilst it is a process we all go through it can actually become unhelpful in bringing a real change in our lives.

We may quite rightly feel sorrow over mistakes we have made or sin we have committed, that however is not the goal or definition of repentance. To repent is to change your beliefs in an area. To have them line up with God’s perspective – the only true reality.

It is natural to feel bad about breaking relationship with God and others through sin but the plan was never to use that as fuel to make ourselves feel really ‘repentant’. In fact, in the bible sometimes repentance is shown by joy! (See Nehemiah 8).

It is important that you understand, however, when I say that repenting is to change your mind I am not implying it is purely an intellectual exercise. For when you really change your beliefs it results in changes in behaviour. If we try change our behaviour without changing our thinking it often has limited success. However if we change our thinking we will change our behaviour as an overflow.

So whenever you see the word ‘repentance’ in the New Testament hear the words ‘change your mind’ and let the context determine what your mind is being changed about.

The good news is you can stop forcing yourself to be really sorry and beating yourself up in hopes that you are repenting. You were not saved by trying harder and you are not sanctified by feeling bad. It reminds me of how we teach our kids to say ‘sorry’ even when they are clearly not (A good endeavour might I add!). Their words say one thing whilst their hearts and tone of voice say another! Sometimes it feels like we just want them to feel bad.

Often our desire to punish ourselves is nothing more than a misunderstanding of God’s grace and an attempt to earn forgiveness. Perhaps also it is a revelation of just how uncomfortable the never ending love of God makes us feel.

Repentance is definitely challenging but it doesn’t mean feeling really bad for all you have done wrong. We need to change our minds about repentance. To repent of repentance! But don’t feel bad about it…

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