Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
Last month, we considered how trusting in God is key to seeing our way forward through the twists and turns of life. Another element of trusting in the grace and mercy of our Creator is that we can confess our sins, receive his forgiveness, and (with the help of the Holy Spirit) get back on the right track. The word that encapsulates this exchange is “repentance.” But what does it mean to repent? Is it solely a change of mind as some deduce from Romans 12:2? Does it require penance as certain religious sects would demand? First, let’s take a look at its origins.
The earliest known understanding of the concept of “repentance” was derived from the nomadic life of the Ancient Near East. If one were to traverse the ubiquitous desert sands and realize they were lost, their only hope for survival would be to turn around and carefully follow their tracks back to where they had started. They could then restart with revised directions. Otherwise, if they were to attempt to make a course correction when lost, they would likely perish in the homogenous landscape of the desert from over-exposure to the sun and dehydration. The later Hebrew development for the word “repentance” would combine 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 following God’s direction (his perfect will and purpose for us).
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 intimately joins our emotions (sorrow and regret) with our thought-life (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 when Jesus called for his listeners to repent, he was not asking them to try harder or fix themselves. He was inviting his audience to put their trust in him as their Savior and Lord and in his offer of forgiveness. This leads to the second question: Is penance necessary once I have repented?
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 merchantof 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. And let’s keep on repenting when we go off course. Repentance removes the barriers of sin that impede our 2020 vision.