What It Means To Repent


When I was growing up, the churches we went to talked a lot about how people needed to repent of their sins and get their hearts right with God.  

I was told more than once during my teenage years that I needed to do both otherwise I was going to be headed down the primrose path to damnation.  

But what did Jesus say about repentance?  What did he mean when he called on people to "repent and believe?"  

In the Gospel of Mark the first words we hear Jesus speak are these:  
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” - Mark 1:15
There's a couple of things that we need to note about this verse in order to get to the "thing underneath the thing."  

First, Jesus declares that the "kingdom of God has come near."  

Jesus declared over and again throughout his ministry that his purpose for being in the world was to declare the coming kingdom of God, to embody it, to demonstrate it, to show what it looks like when the shalom of God is in the world.  

Unfortunately, there are always those in power who are threatened by the coming of God's kingdom because it means the end of theirs.  Come on.  That'll preach. 

The word that the author of Mark's Gospel uses here is the Greek word metanoia, which essentially means the "changing" or "reformation" of one's mind.  

But Jesus wouldn't have been speaking Greek to his disciples, he would have been speaking Aramaic, and most likely would have been thinking more or less in Hebrew.  

The Hebrew word for "repent" is the word tshuva, which literally means "to turn around, to change one's direction."  

The Gospel writer did their best to match the Hebrew concept with a Greek word, so the way we figure out the best sense of the word "repent" from this verse is by sort of mashing up the definitions.  

When we do, we get a sense of the word "repent" that goes something like this:  
The act of realizing you are heading the wrong way and then changing the direction of your life, in order to be journeying toward your best and highest purpose. 
The great Christian mystic and the father of the modern contemplative prayer movement, Thomas Keating puts it like this:  
When Jesus said to "repent" to his first disciples, he was calling them to change the direction in which they were looking for happiness.  
In this understanding of repentance, you first have to realize you are heading the wrong way--that the way you are traveling is not going to lead you to your best and highest purpose.  

That's the step where most of us stumble.  Because most of us don't have the courage or the self-possession to admit we've been heading in the wrong direction.  

Second, there is also a certain amount of sorrow and guilt that is connected to admitting you've been wrong that many of us don't want to face.  Even if we are headed for destruction, we would rather stay the course if it means not facing the truth about ourselves.  

But if we are willing to let our minds be changed, our hearts transformed and our direction reversed, we will find that our sorrow and regret will fade as we move forward in the best direction to discover our truest selves.  

There may be things in your life right now that require a change of direction.  You may need to find the courage to admit you've been wrong, and you need to turn around.  

There is no shame in this--none at all.  And the good news is that as soon as you return to the right road, you will find that you already know the way.  It was in you all along.  

Richard Rohr once wrote: 
The spiritual life is more about unlearning than learning, because the deepest you already knows and already enjoys.
So may you unlearn what is needed in order for you to change direction and begin on the path to your truest self, your highest and best purpose... your calling.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  

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