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.

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