What “Repentance” Is

There was a time when “repentance” was a scary word, associated with fundamentalist street preachers screaming “fornicator!” at me every day in college.

(True story, although in full disclosure it wasn’t just me they screamed at: evidently every college student was a fornicator… Who knew?)

Later, the word became only slightly more accessible: it came to be synonymous with “guilt” and “regret” over mistakes I’ve made, and a brokenness I’ve tended to embody for most of my life.

But even as I understood repentance this way—as an emotional confession, tearfully saying “I’m sorry”, there was something missing.

Because for me, at least, confession (in and of itself) was really failing to address the deeper problem, which was really, “Is there any way out of this endless cycle of mistake/regret/repent/repeat? “

Eventually, however, I came to understand “repentance” in a new way.

First of all, the word LITERALLY means, “change your mind.” The Greek is “meta-noia”, a combination of the word “meta”, and a form of the word “nous”, which is a complicated, nuanced word that DOES mean “mind”, but is also MUCH, MUCH more than “logic.”

“Nous” is also about your perception of reality, the way in which you see the world.

So “to repent” is much more literally to “change the way in which you see the world.”

More on that tomorrow.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is this story that Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel about these two brothers. The younger one demands his inheritance “early” (read: before his father is dead), and—in one of the more intriguing sentences in the New Testament, wastes it “through extravagant living.”

Doesn’t that make your imagination run wild?

Things don’t go well for this younger son, and eventually he finds himself at a “rock bottom” moment, working as a farm hand feeding pigs (which, as a Jewish man, is pretty much a troublesome job, to say the least).

But in his “rock bottom” moment, when he has fallen as far as he can go: his money gone, with nothing left but the SHAME of what he has done and lost, humiliating himself by feeding “unclean” animals, the text says this:

“When he came to his senses…”

(The Greek is a little more, “When he came to HIMSELF.”)

Again: it’s not about weeping (though tears may come).

It’s not about the apologizing, the confession, the regret (though those things are SURELY present).

It’s about COMING TO YOURSELF (“This is not who I am…”).

About THINKING DIFFERENTLY (“Maybe I should go home; after all, my father loves me…”).

From the Bible’s (and especially Jesus’) perspective, “repentance” is not meant to be shameful.

It’s not even meant to be SOLELY sadness and regret.

It’s meant to be a waking up, and opening up to a different reality.

A willingness to believe that MAYBE reality—the world you THINK you know—may actually work differently:

  • that you are not meant for humiliation
  • that you can always go home again
  • that Love really does win

Maybe we’ll explore this some more this week.