Words, Pt 2: “Repent”

The second word I want to take a look at is laden with all sorts of negative connotations. I don’t know about you, but my university came with its own street preacher (remarkably free-of-charge). His favorite place was on the median of University Avenue in Fort Worth, where he was free to ply his trade:




How pleasant. A great way to wake up on your way to your afternoon geology class.

“Repent” is a word that seems to be usually associated with fundamentalist street preachers: they scream at people to repent so that they won’t be burned up in the fires of hell. The way they use it, it’s a challenging and divisive word that puts people decisively on the defensive. Ears are closed, boundaries go up, and dialogue is unthinkable.

In this paradigm, when Jesus shows up in Mark 1 and says—before anything else—“Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” the subtext or paraphrase is something like this: “Everyone better believe in my death and resurrection (which, um, hasn’t happened yet) or I’m gonna burn you all of you suckas up with … fiyahhhhhh!”

In this view, Jesus’ main agenda is to find people to condemn.

Except that doesn’t really seem to be the way Jesus operates. By contrast, the common people seem to really like Jesus, and for his part he seems to be quite gentle with people who, by all accounts, are complete moral failures. Rather, Jesus reserves his “condemnation” for folks who are actually the religious elite who have it all together and have all the answers.

Ironically, they would probably rather resemble my street preacher friend.

So what does Jesus mean by “repent”? The Apostle Paul says it too; what does he mean? (Surely Paul will back the fundamentals: everyone knows that Paul wanted to throw people into hell for not believing in Jesus’ atoning death.)

The word repent is actually a really rich and powerful word. The Greek word is metanoia. Perhaps the most literal translation is change your mind, but a better way to translate it might be, “reconsider your life” or “think differently about reality.”

In the context of Jesus’ statement in Mark 1 (or similarly in Matthew 4), you could paraphrase his statement like this:

Hey the Kingdom of God is here and available to EVERYONE—even the spiritual losers (check the Beatitudes)—so think about your reality differently. You can live your life now completely differently, with transcendent and life-giving spiritual power. You don’t have to live the way you’ve been living; You don’t have to be trapped by the things that have trapped you. It’s available now. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that “repentance” doesn’t come with a cost. To really change one’s mind about reality, one needs to jettison the programs that we have grown up with; our knee-jerk (and often unhealthy) reactions to others’ efforts to control or dominate us. This is certainly difficult, and costly.

But then again, culture’s patterns of addiction and unhealthy obsession would seem to indicate that not repenting has its costs as well. In fact, one could make an argument that living with our compulsive spending, eating, and medicating is a form of death.

So indeed, repent or die: just not in the way you think.

Hey! You can also read “Words: Good News”


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