What is Repentance?

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Icon of the return of the prodigal son

Kallistos Ware, in his collection of fascinating essays called The Inner Kingdom, has an essay on repentance. He explains rightly that the life of the Christian is a life of constant repentance. He quotes St Isaac the Syrian who says that “this life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things”.

The Christian life is meant for repentance, is defined by repentance, and should not be wasted. “But what, in fact, is repentance?”, asks Ware (p 45). This is an important question, because the word repentance, or perhaps otherwise known as penance, is loaded with images of guilt and self-punishment, sometimes even self-loathing. “Such a view is dangerously incomplete”, Ware comments. “Grief and horror are indeed frequently present in the experience of repentance, but they are not the whole of it, nor even the most important part” (p 45).

What then is repentance? Ware explains:

We come closer to the heart of the matter if we reflect on the literal sense of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia. This means “change of mind”: not just to regret the past, but a fundamental transformation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God — in the words of The Shepherd of Hermas, “a great understanding”. A great understanding — but not necessarily an emotional crisis. Repentance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pit, but conversion, the reentering of our life upon the Holy Trinity (p 45)

Repentance is not necessarily sorrow for the past, though it can include that; rather, repentance means to change your mind, to understand reality different in light of what God as accomplished in Christ. It is, before anything else, a conversion of the mind: in light of the work of Christ, I now see and perceive reality and myself differently.

Ware continues this explanation:

As a “new mind”, conversion, reentering, repentance is positive, not negative. In the words of St John Climacus, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair”. It is not despondency but eager expectation; it is not to feel that one has reached an impasse, but to take the way out. It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become. (p 45)

Ware then boils down repentance to a continuing daily attitude:

When interpreted in this positive sense, repentance is seen to be not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion, but throughout this present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering must be constantly renewed; up to the moment of death, as Abba Sisoes realized, the “change of mind” must become always more radical, the “great understanding” always more profound. In the words of St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance…

To repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of heaven is in our midst, at work among us, and that if we will only accept the coming of this Kingdom all things will be made new for us (p 46)

To repent is to see clearly the world in light of God and his action in Christ. To repent is to see the kingdom in our midst. To repent is therefore to see the world rightly.

Luther, who picked up on this ancient understanding of repentance, rightly said in his Catechisms that repentance is simply a return to baptism. By this he meant that to repent is to see once again — over and over again — who God has made a Christian to be. To repent is to understand: “God has washed me, cleansed me, united me to the death and resurrection of Christ. Behold, all things are new!” To repent is to appropriate yet again this reality. That is not to say that the Christian life is simply a bare mental exercise of remembrance; there is moral effort and growth in holiness. The point however, is that to repent of your sin is to return once again and appropriate the reality of God’s action in Christ; and it is a life-long vocation.

Death as a Divine Blessing

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In his essay from The Inner Kingdom called “Go Joyfully: The Mystery of Death and Resurrection”, Kallistos Ware explains the contradicting or conflicting nature of death.

On the one hand, death is a tragedy, confounding the entire human race. It is the great enemy, the “last enemy” which is to be destroyed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the wretched “fruit” of Adam’s disobedience. Christ came for the sole purpose of destroying this death; he came to invade it from the inside out, thus rendering it powerless.

Death is the great enemy; and yet, as Ware argues, death is simultaneously a mysterious blessing which gives way to life anew. For instance: every new stage of life, Ware explains, involves a sort of metaphorical death to the self that opens up new beginnings:

Our earthly journey is an unceasing passover, a constant crossing over through death into new life. Between our initial birth and our eventual death, the whole course of our existence is made up of a series of lesser deaths and births… (p 27)

[A] death-life pattern is…apparent, in a somewhat different way, in the process of growing up. Repeatedly, something in us has to die so that we may pass on to the next stage of life. The transition from the baby to the child, from the child to the adolescent, from adolescent to the mature adult, involves at each juncture an inner death in order that something new may come alive…[I]f at any point we decline to accept the need for dying, we cannot develop into real persons. As George MacDonald says in his fantasy novel Lilith, “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die” (p 28)

Life in itself is a series of “deaths” and “resurrections”. This was Jesus’ point of course, when he told his disciples that one must “give up his life to save it”. Dying to the self strangely enough opens up new life and a new future.

But it is not simply “death to the self” that is a strange mercy. The even more fundamental reality of physical death is a divine blessing. But how so? Ware explains:

[Physical death], though not part of God’s original plan,…is nonetheless His gift, an expression of his mercy and compassion. For us humans to live unendingly in this fallen world, caught forever in the vicious cycle of boredom and sin, would have been a fate too terrible for us to endure; and so God has supplied us with a way of escape. He dissolves the union of soul and body, so that he may afterwards shape them anew, uniting them again at the bodily resurrection on the Last Day and so recreating them to fullness of life. He is like the potter whom Jeremiah watched: “So I went down tot he potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to Him” (18:4-5). The Divine Potter lays his hand on the vessel of our humanity, marred by sin, and he breaks it in pieces, so as to mold it again on his wheel and refashion it according to its first glory. Death serves in this way as the means of our restoration (p 31)

The human project, thus riddled with sin and marred, is subjected to death by God, not because he wants to destroy, but rather because he wants to recreate it anew. God “smashes” his pot, not in wrathful anger, but in view of a new hopeful reality.

This “new reality” is revealed through  the death and resurrection of Christ. God the Son takes upon himself the flesh of marred mankind, is swallowed up into death in the crucifixion, and is afterward raised to new principle life without the corruption of sin and death. The death of Christ is the death of the old man. And the resurrection of Christ is the recreation of the new man. And when a man is saved, he participates in the death and resurrection of Christ, thus dying and rising, being “de-created” and recreated in Christ anew.

And so death, while the greatest enemy, is used by God’s power as a great gift! A divine blessing. Glory!

Salvation as Sharing

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The patristic writers all the way up through the Reformers were fond of stating the gospel in terms of participation and sharing. Athanasius’ wording perhaps is the most famous: God became man that man might become God. That is not to say that men become gods; rather, through salvation, mankind is thereby enabled share in God’s own life. Calvin and Luther had gospel formulations akin to this as well. For instance, Calvin, in his section on the Lord’s Supper in the Institutes, says this: becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him.

The point here is that Jesus becomes what we are that we might become what he is. Or put another way, salvation is all about sharing. God shares in our humanity, in our suffering, in the consequences of our sins, that we might share in his infinitude and righteousness.

Kallistos Ware, in his The Orthodox Way, explains it this way:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification. The notion of sharing is a key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that, just as man is authentically personal only when he shares with others, so God is not a single person dwelling alone, but three persons who share each other’s life in perfect love. The incarnation equally is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (p 73-74)

Faith and Doubt

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Kallistos Ware, in his primer on Eastern Orthodoxy — The Orthodox Way — begins his book talking about what he calls “a mystery”: God. God in his essence is ultimately a mystery to us. In all that he reveals of himself, he is still a great cause of wonder and awe. As much as we may be able to comprehend him, we are still infinitely far from comprehending him.

Because of this, the Orthodox have a way of “doing theology” called apophatism. “Apophatic” theology is essentially doing theology through negation. Or, put another way, the Orthodox stress that one safe way of “knowing” God is by knowing what he is not. God is not finite. God is not a man. God does not change, etc.

Now, why do theology in this manner? Ware explains:

Without this use of the way of negation…our talk of God becomes gravely misleading. All that we affirm concerning God, however correct, falls far short of the living truth. If we say that he is good or just, we must at once add that his goodness or justice are not to be measured by our human standards. If we say he exists, we must qualify this immediately by adding that he is not one existent object among many, that in his case the word “exist” bears a unique significance. So the way of affirmation is balanced by the way of negation. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we are continually “saying and unsaying to a positive effect”. Having made an assertion about God, we must pass beyond it: the statement is not untrue, yet neither it nor any other form of words can contain the fullness of the transcendant God. (p 14)

God is then, ultimately, in his bare essence, a true mystery. In all that we affirm about God, we must also “go beyond”, explain what he is also not.

With that said, Ware then goes on to explain that because God is a mystery, knowledge of  God must be less of an affirmation of facts or truths about him, and more of a personal knowing of him. Theology, properly speaking, does not give us an air-tight knowledge about God; rather, it leads us into an ever-deepening friendship with him.

Ware explains by way of the Nicene Creed:

In the [Nicene] Creed we do not say, ” I believe that there is a God”; we say, “I believe in one God”. Between belief that and belief in, there is a crucial distinction. It is possible for me to believe that someone or something exists, and yet for this belief have no practical effect upon my life.

I say to a much-loved friend, “I believe in you”. I am doing far more than expressing belief that this person exists. “I believe in you” means: I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. (p 16)

It is not the task of Christianity provide easy answers to every questions, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery (p 14)

Going on from this, Ware addresses the question of doubt. Usually doubt is seen as something opposite to faith. They are seen as opposing forces, such that to struggle with doubt means to be weak in faith. But, having seen that theology is less about having complete knowledge about God, and more of an intimate friendship with him — entering ever-deeper into a mystery — doubt ceases to be an opposing force.

Ware explains:

Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own cry, “Lord I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite — that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it…

The words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt”. As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace” (p 16)