It's like those Christians have a different word for everything 4) Repent
Hespeler, 24 January, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Mark 1:14-20, Ephesians 4:17-5:2, Psalm 32
ccording to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus really only had one sermon – one message that summed up all of the others. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” That is how Mark introduced the entire preaching ministry of Jesus – essentially a three point sermon: 1) The kingdom of God is here. 2) repent and 3) accept that this is good news.
And all evidence seems to indicate
that his message found an audience. People appreciated it and
received it as the good news that he said that it was. Think about that for a
moment: the centrepiece of the message is repent.
When was the last time you heard somebody telling people to repent and it
sounded like good news to you?
What does repentance mean to you? I would imagine that most of us would say that repentance has to do, most of all, with feelings. Repentance, to most of us, means feeling sorry for something that you have done or in some cases that you have failed to do. And feeling sorry is not a very pleasant feeling. It is one that most of us do our very best to avoid feeling. So, if repentance is primarily a feeling, Jesus would be telling everyone, “The kingdom of God is here everyone, you should all feel really bad.” That does not sound like very good news. But what if, when Jesus was talking about repentance, he wasn’t talking about a feeling?
The other problem with the notion of repentance that is a bit of a stumbling block is its connection with guilt and forgiveness. The assumption is that repentance is something that comes out of our feelings of guilt and that is a requirement before forgiveness is possible. This leads into all kinds of calculations and insecurities.
For example, say that I have a friend who hurts me in some significant way. Maybe they say something that I perceive as very insulting. But, as hurt as I may be, that person is a friend nevertheless so I want to forgive them be there is this requirement (or at least this expectation) that, in order for there to be forgiveness there must be repentance. So I’m waiting for their repentance.
So my friend comes up to me and says, “Gee, I guess that you totally got all upset at what I said and you think I owe you an apology. Well, I guess, sorry.” And then, you see, I have a problem because what we normally do at that point is that we judge that act of repentance, don’t we? In particular, we ask if it was sincere – did the person really mean it or were they just saying sorry because they were forced to do it. And the assumption is that, if it is not sincere or heartfelt, that it is not real repentance and so I shouldn’t forgive.
This idea can particularly mess us up our relationship with God where we make the same assumptions. In the practice of the church, we are regularly called upon to confess our sins and repent of them and so many of us have fallen into the practice of listing out all of the things that we have done wrong and telling God how sorry we are for them.
But then some of us fall into this cycle where we start to question our confession and repentance. Was it sincere? Did I really feel as sorry as I said I did? And there are Christians who fall into this pattern of being afraid that they are not forgiven and can’t be forgiven because their feelings of remorse just are not strong enough.
So again, if that was what Jesus was actually saying, how eagerly would people have heard that? Basically, he would be inviting people into endless and fruitless speculations about whether they felt bad enough about themselves (or their friends who had wronged them felt bad enough about themselves) for forgiveness to happen. That doesn’t really sound like good news to me. But what if, when Jesus was talking about repentance, he wasn’t talking about it as a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness?
The word repent came into English from Latin and has always had the sense of feeling sorry for or making amends for some mistake or error. But the gospels weren’t written in English or in Latin. They were written in Greek. And the Greek word that is translated as repent is metanoia. And here’s the thing: metanoia never had the sense of feeling sorry.
Metanoia is made up of two Greek roots. Meta means after or beyond and often has the sense of change. We find it in English words like metamorphosis which means a change of form. Noia means mind or way of thinking. We also find that Greek root in words like paranoia. So the Greek word metanoia really doesn’t have any direct connection with feelings. Rather than a feeling of remorse or being sorry, metanoia has to do with a change of mind. It literally means to go beyond the mind or the way of thinking that you had before.
You see, we are all raised into certain ways of thinking about and seeing the world. We are also formed by the things that happen to us (both the good and the bad things) that condition us to think in certain ways about ourselves and about the world and about God. This way of thinking and being is the “mind” that the word metanoia is referring to.
In our reading this morning from the Letter to the Ephesians, we have a really good description of how those early followers of Jesus lived through that experience of going beyond the mind that you have been given: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,” the apostle writes “and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” That was the kind of experience that Jesus was inviting people into. He was asking them to put aside the falsehoods they had been taught to believe, the delusions that they clung to and the ways of their life that were no longer nourishing them and to embrace renewal in the spirit of their minds. And I can definitely imagine people hearing that as good news – a chance at a pretty exciting new beginning.
Now, does going beyond the mind that you had involve feeling sorry for and having regret for the mind that you had before and what you did with it? Absolutely, it certainly can and often does. But feeling sorry is not central and not always necessary to the experience of metanoia. So you do not have to waste any more energy judging whether your own or somebody else’s feelings of remorse are sufficiently sincere for there to be forgiveness.
And what is the connection between metanoia and forgiveness anyways? Well, there is a connection. An experience of going beyond the mind that they previously had can certainly help to put someone in a position where they can really experience forgiveness. But I would not say that metanoia is a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness. Please listen to this carefully: God doesn’t forgive you because you repent. God forgives you because of Jesus and what he has done for you. God forgives you because he loves you. God rejoices when you go beyond the mind that you had, but he doesn’t wait on that to offer you forgiveness when that is what you need.
Now, one thing that metanoia certainly does include is a change in action. When you change your ways of perceiving and thinking about the world, changes in behaviour will naturally flow from that. But sometimes people do miss that first step and attempt to practice repentance by merely reforming their behaviour. And so we make resolutions. We tell ourselves that we need to try harder to be better and it doesn’t work. You have to change your mind before you can change the behaviour that springs from that mind.
People also have trouble when they go through a metanoia experience and they decide that they need to make some changes in behaviour but then those changes don’t come as easily as you might think. The ways of thinking may have changed but they find that old habits and patterns of behaviour are pretty deeply ingrained even though you don’t see those things in the same way anymore. This can be discouraging, but it is no reason to despair. It is a common experience, connected to the very nature of our humanity, but you will find that if you hold fast to your renewed mind and trust in God, the change that you truly desire will come.
I know that we sometimes avoid dwelling on the notion of repentance in the church these days. Of course, it is not all that surprising that we wouldn’t want to talk about repentance if we’ve been assuming that repentance is all about feeling sorry and guilty all the time. But I think it is time that we realize that repentance, at least repentance correctly understood, is exactly what we need most.
But the really big question is, if it’s not going to be us wallowing around in feelings of regret, what does genuine metanoia mean for us today. Do we all have some repentance to do? Absolutely. But what mind do we have to change or go beyond? I would suggest that a true exercise of metanoia really begins with an examination of your thought patterns (and not your actions). Nevertheless, your actions might still be a good indicator of where your mind is leading you astray.
So I am going to suggest an exercise in metanoia that I want you to try this week. I’ll bet that at some point this week, you will do something that you are not entirely happy with. (I mean, it happens to most of us often enough.) You might do something that disappoints you. Say you act in a way that puts down or belittles someone else. Maybe you act in a way that is prejudiced or mean. Or it could be that you fail to do something – fail to speak up for yourself or someone else who really needs it, fail to help someone when you could have.
Just keep your eyes open, I’m sure something (small or large) will come up at some point this week. And, like you have probably done before, you will be inclined to condemn yourself for your failure and perhaps make a resolution to do better next time. Well, this is what I want you to do differently this week: don’t do that. Don’t focus on your actions (apart from making any amends for them if you need to).
Instead, I challenge you to engage in metanoia. Ask yourself, prayerfully and with God’s help, not what you did wrong but what were the thought patterns that led you to act in the way you didn’t like. Did you put someone else down because you struggle with your own self esteem? Is there some event in your past that makes you fearful of a certain group of people? Were you looking for validation? Acting out of fear? Were you afraid to care, to risk, to share?
Prayerfully seek to understand the mind that made you act as you did and then prayerfully seek a new mind that goes beyond the one that you have. Immerse yourself in the truths that will overcome the lies that we all tell ourselves. That is what true metanoia means. If you begin there and your patterns of thinking change, you may find that your actions change too slowly and that you keep disappointing yourself, but don’t give up. When you practice metanoia, real and enduring change is possible. And that is good news for anybody.