Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
Last month, we considered how the gift of accountability is an act grace. When the Holy Spirit confirms words spoken in truth and love, the person who is confronted will inevitably come to a place of repentance. But what does it mean to repent? Is it simply a change of mind? Does it require penance? First, let’s take a look at it’s origin.
In the biblical Hebrew, repentance is derived from two verbs: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nacham (to feel sorrow). The idea is that when we experience sorrow and regret, we will be inspired to return to that place in our lives where we were still on track with the will of God. In the New Testament, the word translated as repentance is taken from the Greek μετάνοια (metanoia), meaning to change one’s mind. This latter definition is limited by the Greek language which fails to fully capture the Hebrew meaning that initimately joins our emotions (sorrow and regret) with our thoughtlife (leading to a change of mind) to produce action (engaging the body). In other words, if I have truly changed my mind, then my attitude and my behavior will align with my revised values. So is penance necessary once I have made the adustment?
According to Merriam-Webster, penance is an “act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin.” A good illustration of this medieval-originated tradition is portrayed in the movie, The Mission. The main character, Rodrigo Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) is a ruthless kidnapper and slave merchant of the Guaraní natives of modern-day Argentina. Having undergone a personal crisis and conviction of his inhumane crimes, Mendoza seeks forgiveness from God through penance. Under the direction of a wise Jesuit Priest, Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons), Mendoza embarks on a pilgrimage to the mountain village of the Guaranís (whom he had once persecuted) with his armor and weaponry harnessed together by net and tied to his torso by towrope. The long and demanding climb depletes Mendoza of his strength, and he fails to scale the last steep slope. Discouraged and exhausted, Mendoza lays motionless against the rain-drenched earth. It is only then that the accompanying tribal chief sends one of his young warriors to Mendoza’s aid. As the warrior approaches, he raises his knife to Mendoza’s throat to indicate that justice will be served. Then, suddenly, he turns toward the towrope and cuts Mendoza free of his burden.
It’s a simple truth that many of us struggle to believe: that repentance and resulting forgiveness are gifts from God that cannot be earned through penance or any other humanly contrived means of contrition. From start to finish, God acts and we respond. So as we approach this season of Lent, let’s open our hearts and minds to the Father’s gracious gift of repentance that leads us to the One who has paid the price for all of our sins, Jesus Christ!