Thursday, 17 April 2014


"Repentance - in Greek, metanoia, a change of mind."

I read that definition of an old, familiar word and concept today and it sort of blew me away.  I guess I still had the childish (as in, simple, for children) idea: when you do wrong, you say you are sorry and then try not to do it again.

I never realized how limiting that definition is.

I had heard people say that when you are really sorry for doing it, you really do never do it again.  I inwardly scoffed at the idea, since I could personally attest to the fact that even though I was sorry, I would still probably fall in that area again.  And again.

I would try hard.  I would really mean it, this time.  But that "natural man" kept getting in the way of my spiritual desires.  Then I would brush it off as the trying tests of this mortal life.  After all, I knew I could never achieve perfection in this life, which meant that mistakes would happen.

Saying you are sorry and trying not to do it again also encamps itself in the "action" realm rather than the "mindset" realm.  Trying not "to do" something means that you are trying to control your actions, fighting off temptation, and then sometimes giving in.

It's sort of like standing in front of a shelf full of candy.  You want a candy bar, but you have no money. You know stealing is wrong.  And yet you stand there, willing your hand not to reach out and pocket one.  Again, you tell yourself that it is wrong to take it.  You let your fingers graze over the brightly coloured wrappers.  You smell the faint aromas beneath the packaging.  You wince and pull your hand back, and yet still linger.

Whether or not you actually take that candy bar is beside the point here.  This scenario is about action: do I or don't I?  If you do take it, and later feel guilty and wish to repent, you would admit fault, apologize to the store owner, restore the money for the candy, and promise not to do it again.  You might feel bad for a while, but if there is no real change of mind, then given six months, a year, you might find yourself again staring at another shelf of candy, wondering.

But, if we apply the above definition of repentance, then what you have experienced is a true change of mind.  "Repentance is a ruthless dismantling of old ways of seeing and thinking, and then a diligent and vigilant building of new ones...You turn away, stubbornly and without apology, from that which formerly entranced you." (Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God)

A child who was sorry and promising not to steal again might very well keep that promise.  But perhaps that is only driven by the fact that he knows it is wrong and shouldn't do it.  He might stand again at the candy counter, over and over again, and think about what it would be like to have that candy bar.  Even though he controls his hands (actions) and doesn't act on the impulse, he is still standing there, wishing he could have it.

On the other hand, if he dismantles the old way of seeing and thinking, then he never lingers at that candy bar without a coin in his pocket again.  He hasn't just turned away from that old temptation, but actually has changed the way he thinks about it: there is no point standing there without money to buy.  It isn't about taking or not taking the candy, because taking it isn't even an option.

I think we all have areas in which we are in one state or the other.  On a superficial level, I would never park in an illegal parking spot.  It doesn't even cross my mind that I could pull over, turn the key and get out if the sign says I can't.  On the other hand, I push my speedometer up to exactly 9km/hour over the speed limit when I drive.  If I was pulled over, I might say I was sorry to the police officer, and I might feel a bit sorry that I was breaking that law, and yet I can almost guarantee that in a couple of weeks I would be back to the old habit.  While I would be sorry, I would not be repentant.  However, let's say that suddenly I realize the impact that an extra 9km/hour would have.  For example, I have heard that school zones are exactly 40km/h because studies have shown that if a car hits a person at that speed, the person is much more likely to survive than if they are hit even at 50km/h.  When I heard this stat on the radio about 6 years ago, it changed my mindset about driving in school zones.  I dismantled the old way of thinking and built a new one.

Back to the subject at hand, and more serious areas of sin than driving and candy bars.  The reason we struggle again and again is that repentance hasn't yet fully taken place.  I don't think it's something that can be achieved on demand, because of a consequence meted out or a guilty conscience.  It must root itself more deeply in the heart in order for that lasting shift to take place.

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