Repentance - it doesn't mean what you think it means


The word alone is enough to make your blood run cold. There is nothing attractive about it. It can only be stuffed into the mouth's of the self-righteous. It is a big stick to beat you with; it is the Spanish Inquisition; the subjugation of nations; the purple and the red of the pious. It is a word thick with hatred.

Having Jesus say it doesn't make it any easier. It just turns him into one of "them."

Whoever says it, it still means begging for forgiveness, preferably on your hands and knees, face pressed firmly into the dust and dirt, a catalogue of sins paraded in front of the callous. Shame and embarrassment, and an unbreakable promise never to repeat the errors, must accompany any claim of repentance if there is to be any hope of forgiveness.

But what if it didn't mean any of that? What if it meant something altogether more kind, something more manageable - even desirable?

I'm not saying it wouldn't take years to scrub that word clean; to scrape off the centuries of blood and muck - and, who knows, perhaps it is better off abandoned to a bygone age, chucked into the garbage as a piece of worthless junk. No good, and honestly, a hindrance.

But before we do that...

A straightforward search to define the word repentance variously turns over, "remorse for past conduct; a feeling of regret for past wrongs; to change one’s mind and heart completely about anything." In the bible, the Hebrew word for repentance even has the sense of "comforting oneself." And the two Greek words convey the idea of changing ones mind with regard to the past, a change of viewpoint or disposition, accompanied by a feeling of regret, or dissatisfaction.

So, all repentance is asking us to do, is to look back. Don't all of us have regrets? Don't all of us wish that some things had been different, that we didn't say what we said, or that something hadn't been said to us?

Repentance simply asks us to return to key events in life, and to re-interpret those events with the eyes of someone older - events that we believe make us who we are. More often than not, it will involve people who clearly had a great impact on us in our formative years, usually our parents; if not, a guardian, or some other.

It must be stressed that this is not done with the aim of ascribing blame, or finding fault. It is with the goal of understanding.

None of this is to say that repentance is easy. It is not. It is extremely difficult, scary, daunting...but, it is not impossible.

In my own case, this is what I did to begin the journey: I found a photograph of myself when I was little, around the age of eight. I had just begun boarding school, a key event in my life. From there I was able to trace what was happening in my life, the years that lead up to that event. I worked backwards and forwards from there, what it meant for me, and why my parents made the choices they did. I bought a notepad solely for this purpose, and I wrote down everything. I also found a photograph of me some fifteen years later, a different event, and I did the same thing, working backwards and forwards, questioning the choices I made, and how I felt. I wrote it all down, spelling it all out.

Repentance asks the question, "Why?" Why do I do what I do, or believe what I believe? Take one key event, or one premise that you hold, and keep asking, "Why?" We need to keep on digging down until that moment when we catch a glimpse of our own misery. (The Czechs have a word for it - Litost.) But, then we work past it, we begin to understand the source of that guilt or shame - and when we do that, we understand. We are able to forgive ourselves, and let go of such feelings.

We get the sense of what it means that "Your sins are forgiven," because we know that God understands - and only with understanding can there be forgiveness. And, we feel closer to him.

Repentance helps us to realise that God was there all the time. He saw what was going on. He knew why one person acted in the way they did, and he understood why another person responded in the way they did. This is the key desirable gift of repentance: It helps us to see ourselves as God sees us. And for every event we interpret in that way, it takes us a step closer to God. We begin to bridge the gap separating us from God. It is the way back.

Repentance on its own is a wonderful thing. It can mean a happy life right now. It can mean freedom, and peace of mind.

Repentance with God in mind, however, can mean something even greater. It can open you up to experience the same revelation that Jesus experienced. God's holy spirit poured into your heart giving you a new lease of life! I'm not talking about leaping up and sprinting to the nearest baptism pool, or running off and joining a monastery. I am simply talking about a firm and joyous conviction, a freedom from unfathomable anxieties, and faith in the truest sense of the word, beyond anything you could have thought possible. Everything will look different.

And if referring to it as "repentance" still leaves you cold, you could always call it - oh, I don't know..."divine therapy"?