“Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
This simple and timeless message was preached by both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Repentance is an oft misunderstood aspect of Christianity that serves as one of the biggest roadblocks of entering into the divine dance of joy. But, how do we define repentance? The word “repent” comes from the Latin word “paenitere,” which means “to cause to repent.” Helpful, right? Well, more specifically, it means “to regret.” Digging deeper into etymology, we see that “regret” essentially means “to lament once more.”
Regret is different from repentance in that regret is merely a feeling. More so, it is a feeling of guilt and one that persists, as we lament it more and more. Regret is an insufficient and unbiblical definition of repentance, yet we somewhat consider them to be synonymous. Regret leads to repentance, right?
Well, not necessarily. Psychologically, regret can have a crippling effect on a person. In fact, I’d dare to say that this is the most common effect on a person, as the only way regret causes refocusing is if there’s opportunity for change. Regret is often tied to a thing of the past and is therefore unable to be changed. We ruminate on our past and, when we can’t change it, incarcerate ourselves in a cage of stress and guilt. Regret is the antithesis of repentance.
Repentance and regret do not even fall into the same category because repentance is an action. At least, the repentance Jesus and John spoke of was…
“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32, ESV)
Jesus called people to repentance. Jesus, although He was God and could do so, is not calling people to a feeling. Jesus is calling people to an action. He called His disciples and they followed. You respond to a calling, not with emotion, but with action. If you feel a calling to be in ministry, you don’t just sit down and do nothing, you work towards that goal. You study your Bible more, you apply for seminary, you seek pastoral council, you do something about it. When Jesus says He is calling us to repentance, we need to take that as seriously as if we felt He was calling us to mission work across the seas.
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3, ESV)
“No, I tell you; but unless you have this feeling of remorse, you will likewise perish. If you don’t feel that, sorry about your luck.” That’s not what Jesus says here. Jesus is, rather clearly, describing an action. If somebody wrongs you, feels deep remorse, and continually does it again, do you forgive them? Of course not. To put it in more clear terms, if a first-time offender commits a crime, feels deep remorse, gets off on probation, and continues on offending, will he avoid punishment? Of course not. Remorse is nothing without change. But, the change is the key to repentance.
The Greek word translated as “repent” is actually the word “metanoeo,” which means “to change one’s mind.” Here, we see the limitation of the word “repent” as it is currently defined. Repentance is an active changing of one’s mind. In fact, the Greek doesn’t refer to emotion at all. I have repented of things before I’ve felt any remorse for them. Truly, it is only in repentance that I finally see and feel why what I did was wrong most of the time.
Carl Jung uses the term “metanoia,” a direct derivative of “metanoeo” and also a theological term, to describe a psychological process in which our psyche breaks itself down and rebirths itself into a more adaptive form. This same concept can be applied to repentance. We must break down our sin and ourselves to be reborn as a more adapted form of ourself. What this means is that we must face the pain and consequence of what our sins have caused, allow it to wash over us, and then, we change our actions with the help of Christ.
Repentance is difficult because it means that we have to admit that our desires were wrong. We have to rail against our physionomy (being ruled by nature), swallow our pride, and say we were wrong. Unrepentance is a form of idolatry that elevates our desires and morals above those of God. We think we’re correct. We begin to elevate our self — our flesh — above God. This is also why biblical repentance is an action. It is not a natural process.
Of course, we repent far more than we realize. The difference is that, we don’t often repent for the benefit of our soul. We repent for the benefit of our flesh. Repentance for our soul is biblical repentance. It is necessary repentance. I can repent of my sin because I offended the girl I like and I want her to like me back, but that’s flesh-feeding. Or, I can repent of my sin because I offended the God I love and I want to glorify Him more. That’s soul-feeding.
Jesus talks about repentance a handful of times in the Gospel. Given the typically concise nature of many of the Gospel stories, any time something is noted as being mentioned by Jesus multiple times, He must have talked about it a lot. Every time Jesus spoke of repentance, He spoke of it as an action. The action of repentance is flesh-destructive. That means it does not feel good at first. That means it is a process, because denying the flesh is not a one-time thing. We must break down our flesh and allow it to be reborn into a more adapted being. We must repent because we must love God more than we love our self.