“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
“Repentance” has gotten a very bad rap in recent decades. As far as my own experience goes, repentance got utterly ruined for me by the televangelists of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “REPENT! REPENT! REPENT!” They’d yell it at me through my TV screen, their faces all red and blotchy from being so worked up. They acted like they knew something about me that I didn’t, and what they knew was really, really horrible. So horrible they were screaming at me to do something about it.
“REPENT! REPENT! REPENT!”
Maybe those televangelists sincerely believed they were trying to save me. But that’s not at all the message I got from their spittle-spray tirades. The impact they had on me was something more like the Shame Nun on Game of Thrones…
Only worse than that. Much, much worse. If those men were trying to move me toward God, they failed utterly. Few things pushed me away from the possibility of a loving God more effectively than the presence of a screaming televangelist on the TV screen or a street preacher on the west mall of my university yelling at students to repent as they made their way to class.
In the shadow of those decades, the admonition to “repent” has become so viscerally associated with religious abuse and the self-righteous judgment of others that nowadays you almost never hear the word used at all. And when it is it’s mostly as a mockery, or a joke.
But I believe there’s something really valuable about this word that we need to reclaim. Especially now.
I really think it’s time we picked repentance up out of the mud, gave it a good rinse, and took a fresh look at what it was, originally, trying to say. It turns out that once you strip away all the nonsense that’s happened to the word over the past half century or so, you’ll find that repentance actually points to a very awesome meaning, and even (dare I say) an essential growth-provoking practice.
The word most often translated as “repentance” in the Bible is actually the Greek word metanoia. Whereas we’ve come to understand repentance as feeling remorseful or ashamed about something you’ve done, metanoia is a much deeper and more nuanced term. In fact, the meaning of metanoia is so different from the meaning we commonly ascribe to repentance that some Bible scholars consider it “an extraordinary mistranslation,” one even going so far as to call it “a linguistic and theological tragedy.”
Metanoia comes from two root words in the Greek: Meta, meaning “after” or “beyond,” and Nous, meaning mind. It literally meant to “think again” as in to rethink something, or to “think beyond” as in to think outside your current paradigm or worldview. For the Greeks, to metanoia meant to change the way you look at something in such a fundamental way that it leads to a fundamental change in behavior or way of living.
Metanoia is a change of mind so foundational that it takes you out of your current paradigm and ushers you into a new one. It’s like my friend Tommy from high school. Brilliant guy, with terrific athleticism and looks that made him the envy of all the other guys in his class. Everybody knew he’d go far. He got high marks in school, and when he graduated he went on to study engineering in college. Smart as he was, it was the obvious choice for him. He was destined to get hired by some big company and make a ton of money as a successful engineer. But then, after a few years of classes, he dropped out of university, bought some fertile land and started a farm. When we asked him about why he made this drastic change, he said, “I just realized I wanted a simpler life.” He’s been happily farming ever since.
That’s metanoia: A change of mind so significant that it unavoidably alters the course of your life.
So when Jesus’ herald John the Baptist comes preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:1-2), he’s not saying “Feel bad because you are really terrible people, and God is about to smite you.” He’s saying “It’s time to rethink the way you see your life, because the Kingdom of God is about to be revealed to you.” It was an invitation. Not a condemnation.
See? Metanoia is awesome.
OK, so why am I harping on this so much? Well, I say all of that to say this…
Right now, I believe all of us Christians and our leaders, are being invited into a season of significant self-reflection. It makes sense, really. In the huge uncertainty of the “liminal space” the world is in at the moment (a topic I explored at length in my previous post here), it’s only wise for us to pause and assess or “rethink” what it means to follow Jesus now. Part of the process of metanoia involves deeply examining our current perspectives and behaviors, and letting go of anything that doesn’t line up with the kind of people Christ calls us to be. Uncertainty can make people afraid, but this isn’t a time for the Church to flail and grasp for control out of fear or doubt. Rather, it’s a time for us to sincerely and humbly consider the places God may be calling us to metanoia ~ to a fundamental shift in the way we look at what it means to follow Jesus.
We’re all different, of course, so each soul must examine his or her own life to identify where or if a fresh pursuit of metanoia is needed. But here are four Church-wide symptoms that I believe point to a deep need for metanoia within the larger Body of Christ:
Our love has grown cold. If you ask the typical nonChristian in America whether Christians are loving, you probably won’t like the answer. And really, their disdain is justified. It seems too many of us for too long have chosen self-protection over love for others. We have wounded and rejected entire groups of people who do not believe as we do, rather than love and serve them in the Name of Christ as Jesus directs. We have built walls when we are called to build bridges. We have turned Christian faith from a Christ-centered practice of love for the world to a justification to control and condemn the people we don’t agree with.
We have let anger and fear dominate our faith. Many of us are taking actions we think are right, but scratch just a little beneath the surface and it’s easy to see our motives are not pure. We have mistaken our self-righteous anger for true Christlikeness. We have mistaken our fear for devotion to the Truth. Jesus is not angry at those who have not yet believed in him, and he certainly isn’t afraid of them. In fact, he is in love with them, and is continually reaching out to them in his love in a thousand different ways every single day. This is the essence of the gospel message of John 3:16. Those who follow God are called to join him in loving the world too, in the same sacrificial way he does.
We have served our comfort rather than Christ. Christianity is a faith for the underdog, the outcast, the rejected, and the poor. We’re at our best as people of faith when we identify with and serve the underprivileged and overlooked in the world. Christianity was never meant to be a comfortable way of life, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that our ongoing devotion to being comfortable and protecting our comfortable lives has deeply undermined the integrity of our claim to be “followers of Jesus.”
We have forged an unhealthy alliance with political power. During the time of Jesus’ life and ministry on Earth, Israel was under forced occupation by Rome. The rule of Caesar over the Jews flew in direct conflict with their religious beliefs, and their society at the time showed it. The people chafed against their Roman overlords at every turn. And yet, Jesus made a point of distancing himself and his message from any attempt to politicize it. Time and again, when the religious rulers tried to force Jesus to choose a side in the political war of the day, he consistently refused to be pinned down. He refused to let the gospel of the Kingdom be reduced to a political ideology. Why? Well, we can see why now, can’t we? Reducing the Kingdom to a political argument or ideology doesn’t further the gospel; it corrupts it. We have conflated devotion to Christ with devotion to a particular political party, party leader or ideology, and to the extent that we have done this, it has corrupted our capacity to hear the voice of Jesus and to follow his lead, and his lead only.
I truly believe the vast majority of us Christians mean well. We still want to love, serve, and follow Jesus. But collectively, the signals we’re sending into the world strongly suggest we’ve lost our way. Despite our good intentions, it’s clear to many of us now that something has gone awry with our Christian message and our Christian practice. We’re missing the mark. And it’s time we paused and really looked at where we are now, what we’ve missed or are missing, and find the metanoia we need to get back to a life of “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).
So how do we open ourselves to metanoia? There are probably a thousand ways, but here are three simple but powerful suggestions to get you (and me) started:
1. Ask God to show you where you’ve personally gone off track. Here’s a simple way to do this: For the next 30 days, pray this prayer while you’re in the shower or on your way to work ~ “God, please reveal to me any beliefs I hold that limit You or me in any way. Show me Your Truth. Amen.” Keep a journal by your bed to record any insights or revelations that come to you at the end of each day. At the end of the month, review what you’ve discovered (metanoia) and take action to change your life accordingly.
2. Find someone who doesn’t see the world the way you do, and actively serve them. Take them out to dinner. Mow their yard. Watch their kids for a night. Run an errand for them. Help them clean out their garage. And while you’re at it, really listen to them. Listen to their stories. Ask questions. Learn. Be open to a wider understanding of what inspires them to believe and think as they do.
3. Reject fear, despair, and doubt. Practice faith, hope, and love. Take a survey of your life and take note of any situations where fear, despair or doubt are driving your choices or behavior. In each case, ask yourself: What would I do differently in this situation if I saw it through the eyes of faith, hope and love? Whatever you come up with, do that. With time and practice, this simple process can make a habit of choosing faith over doubt, hope over despair, and love over fear.
Like I said in the last post, thanks for bearing with me all the way to the end. I’m not sure how many of these longer posts any of us can stand, but I’m grateful to have you with me on the journey. Please do share your thoughts or questions in the comments below. I in no way think I’ve figured all this stuff out, and I’m definitely open to a fresh metanoia of my own.