Repentance isn’t normally viewed as a happy word.
It has associations of grief and tears, overtones of sorrow and abasement and owning up to your own crap. “I was wrong” is one of the hardest things in the world to say.
We don’t like it. I don’t like it. My ongoing life’s quest has been to be right; admitting that I wasn’t strikes directly at the core of that. And that’s what repentance is about.
The New Testament uses the Greek word metanoia, deriving from the roots nous, meaning mind or thoughts, and meta, meaning to change or to go beyond.
The Old Testament frequently couches calls to repent in the language of navigation: turn from your wicked ways and turn back to the Lord.
“Changing your thoughts” sounds better, but the essence is the same. You have to change your mind about what you did, stop justifying it to yourself, admit that you were in the wrong.
More, though: the examples of repentance we’re shown in the pages of Scripture are distinctly uncomfortable. Sackcloth and ashes feature prominently; the idea being to demonstrate the depth of your sorrow over what you had done by putting aside creature comforts and embracing discomfort and misery.
The purpose of the sackcloth and ashes was twofold. Firstly, it was a demonstration of seriousness. In a time in which the lives of common people were, to coin a phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”, sackcloth was itchy, uncomfortable, scratchy and common, and ashes were a regularly-encountered form of dirt. Taking off your smooth, comfortable clothes and putting away the cleanliness that only the rich could afford was a way of underlining the seriousness of what you were doing. Repentance isn’t something you can just mouth comfortable words over and then move along; if you’re going to take it seriously, you have to take it seriously. It’s not really something you can do at the same time that you’re stuffing your face with chocolate or watching your favourite film.
Secondly, the sackcloth and ashes provided a break from the normal routine that encouraged and abetted the sin you’re in the dock for. You had a continual reminder in the itchy clothes and feeling of being filthy that you weren’t going to live that way any more; that things were going to be different. It ought to be a positive thing, even in its discomfort.
The trouble is that in our humanness we too easily connect the symbols of internal spiritual realities with the realities themselves. Instead of being a symbolic act and aide-memoire, the act becomes a mortification of the flesh, a false, pagan idea that you can somehow appease the wrath of the God by inflicting upon yourself an amount of suffering equal to the offence.
Instead of being a process through which we change our minds to agree with God’s view of our behaviour and attitudes, in which new agreement we appeal to His mercy and receive His forgiveness as a free gift and an act of pure grace, repentance becomes a sort of sacrifice or payment by which we try to purchase God’s forgiveness.
We can get an idea that “that wasn’t real repentance; I didn’t feel sorry enough”. “I should have really felt how awful what I did was”. “If I suffer some, then God will have to forgive me”.
This isn’t repentance. At best it’s a mistaken idea that we really need to do something so we can get forgiven. Like Naaman, we get offended by the prophet’s simple remedy for our spiritual uncleanness. We think we should have to do some huge important task by which we can look big and important, a committer of big and important sins. Or not even that; part of us won’t believe it’s real if it wasn’t difficult. The simple truth of grace is offensive to us.
Metanoia communicates “changing of mind”. These days we use “I’ve changed my mind” very lightly and almost cavalierly, but the Greek word nous denotes the totality of your thoughts. You aren’t just changing your mind like you do when you decide to have chicken rather than beef for supper; you’re changing your basic, fundamental mental attitudes and decisions. The language of turning in the Old Testament communicates turning your back on something and walking away. You’re not going to continue in that old life any more.
The idea is that it’s a permanent change. A frog can’t unmetamorphose back into a tadpole; it’s unnatural. In the same way, it’s unnatural for someone who has genuinely come to repentance to revert. They have changed their minds, and the Lord has changed their heart. How can they go back again?
It happens, though, or appears to. I’m not in the place of God to know whether anyone’s repentance is or was genuine, but the implication is that if it’s real it will stick. People do fall away, people do genuinely come to repentance over a particular sin and then do it again from habit. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in danger of hellfire just because they relapsed back into an old habit, nor that they’re necessarily guaranteed entry to the Kingdom because they used to sort-of believe, once.
But the point is that repentance is a change. It’s no good mouthing the words of the Sinner’s Prayer if our life doesn’t change as a result. All that does is add a few meaningless words into your life, and what use is that?
The title of this post is taken from the song When True Simplicity Is Gained, a song made famous as the melody around which Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring is built. Specifically the second stanza:
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed
And to turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.
I talked about this song in one of my earliest posts, and it’s appropriate again now, but for a different reason.
Then, I was talking about complexity and the need to return to the simple focus of serving the Lord.
Now, I’m remembering that one of the meanings of “simplicity” is “singleness of focus”.
To bow and to bend is inextricably part of repentance – we have to acknowledge God’s right to say what’s right; we have to bend to His judgment of how things really are. And with the language of turning, we really do seem to be in repentance territory.
But “to turn, turn will be our delight“? What could possibly make repentance delightful?
Well, even the invitation to repent is supposed to be Good News. God isn’t writing you off. You are valuable enough to Him to be given another chance.
But it’s “when true simplicity is gained” that turning becomes a delight. When we have such singleness of focus on the Lord that we align our thinking to His because it’s so much better than ours. When all of the things that get in the way – our pride, our attraction to foolish things, our love of sinning – wither in the laserlike intensity of devotion to Him.
It’s a process. We’re probably not going to get all the way there in one jump. If God does a major work and leaps you over years of painful struggle, don’t dismiss it, but many of us do struggle for years. But in the end, “by turning, turning” we will come round right. He’s staked His word on it. He’s going to transform us into His image with ever-increasing glory, beginning in this world and continuing to the next.