I have to admit that of all the topics to write and talk about, repentance has been the most difficult. It is difficult to write about repentance because: first, it is hard to accept that we make mistakes and do wrongs (whether consciously or unconsciously). Second, it is hard to tell others that we need to switch our ways. And third, typically the path to repentance does not come naturally to me after hearing someone condemn me, so why would I expect it would for you?
In spite of the difficulty to communicate the message of repentance, we learn in Scripture that repentance is at the heart of both John the Baptist and Jesus’ message. In fact, if there is one thing that we actually know about Jesus is that he preached the message of repentance of sins. If that was what Jesus was about, and he commands that to us disciples, then we better ponder and internalize the concept.
I can think of two extreme ways in which we can misunderstand repentance. One extreme way would be to think of repentance as the response to the judgment of others by starting to live life as if everything in it is wrong. I have seen people who see repentance this way and think that it starts with telling others what they shouldn’t do. To them, if you repented then you should live a robotic and boring life: no pleasure, no leisure, no games, no rest, no fun, no jokes, no talking, no dancing, no music, no art, and no party. I think this is one extreme understanding of repentance and its implications. Another extreme understanding of repentance is to think of it as simply admitting that we are not perfect. In this extreme, the concept of repentance is merely about feeling sorry about our casual mistakes. This idea takes repentance as more of an innocent awareness that nobody is perfect.
When we read the Bible, we see both Jesus and John the Baptist modeling a deeper concept of repentance. In essence, repentance in the Bible means a change of mind and will about something that we are doing wrong. Let me share with you four aspects that I find worth mentioning around this concept:
- Repentance applies to everyone – When Jesus called people to repentance, many of these individuals were not explicitly sinning. In fact, one time Jesus calls for the repentance of Galileans after being abused by Roman authorities. What does this mean? Just because we have not committed terrible acts like Hitler and Stalin does not mean we do not sin. New Testament if filled with the idea that we all need to make a re-start, we all need a new beginning or even a new birth either at some point or on a continuous basis. It does not matter what our job is, whether we are doctors, social workers, nurses, firemen, businessmen or even religious leaders. We have all sinned and need restoration. Having this in our mindset should make us more open and receptive when others tell us we have offended them and should flag to us the need for those checkpoints.
- Repentance does not come naturally – We should all be examining our lives constantly. This is called meditation or reflection and it’s a traditional Christian and Jewish practice. This meditation can be part of our prayer activity or our first or last activity of the day. Some people do it intentionally as a quiet time. Anyhow, what I have realized is that if I reflect and meditate well about my last few days I will come up with things that I should not have done. What we see in the Scripture is that when a person reflects on his or her life, that person will find spots that need to be corrected. Psalm 1 says that the good man reflects on God’s law continuously and that this activity shapes his path. Our journey to the good life and the godly path necessitates repentance, as a result of our continuous reflection and meditation.
- Repentance is neither shallow nor extreme – On one hand, repentance does involve the awareness that we made a mistake and feel sorry about it, but it does not stop there. Repentance makes us take steps to repair what is broken; it is followed by a confession, by reconciliation or by real measures to prevent something from happening again. Repentance shifts a debate about ‘I am right and you are wrong’ to a discussion on ‘I may be wrong and let me hear what you have to say.’ On the other hand, correcting our deviations does not translate into becoming isolated monks. Not everyone’s repentance will look the same, in fact, they may all look different. When people started following John his disciples were known for their fasting and praying all the time. When people started following Jesus they would mostly hang out, eat and live a communal life. The act of repentance does not mean we will choose to become weirdo’s, but it will go farther than just feeling sorry.
- Finally, the purpose of repentance is not to repent. We do not repent because we are told to. We do not repent due to a sort of Christian punishment requirement. We also do not repent because we are evil creatures (although we can do evil things). Actually, we repent because that is how the change we need starts. The transformation to becoming who our Creator wants us to be as creatures starts with repentance. So while sinning should naturally produce remorse and rightly inspire repentance, we ought to repent so that God can help us to become better people. The act of repentance is not to put us down but rather to lift us up from where we have fallen. Repentance prepares our heart so that we can do the right thing. But such a heart-preparation is necessary.
I remember that a few years ago I saw a bumper sticker with a text that has stuck with me thereafter. It said ‘ God loves you the way you are but does not want you to stay that way.’ In the context of the gospel, such text is absolutely right. Our savior came to save us and the first thing he said to us was ‘Repent.’ Let’s honor such direction and participate in the tradition of the church that calls us to acknowledge our shortfalls and do our part to bridge them.