[From "The Illumined Heart", Paraclete Press, 2001; reprinted Touchstone, March 2002]
* Selected for Best Christian Writing, 2004*
The first time Jesus appears, in the first Gospel, the first instruction he gives is “Repent.”
From then on, it’s his most consistent message. In all times and every situation, his advice is to repent. Not just the scribes and Pharisees, not just the powerful—he tells even the poor and oppressed that repentance is the key to eternal life. In an incident that would make modern-day spin doctors frantic, Jesus even advises repentance in response to a horrifying atrocity. Some in his audience tell him that Pilate has murdered some Galilean worshipers, spattering their blood on the animal sacrifices. Shockingly, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Apparently he is not concerned about how this will play on Mt. Peor.
Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn’t really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.
This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren’t enough.
We don’t feel like we’re rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you’re automatically sinless.
A second popular myth is this: We’re nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn’t it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we’re nice when we’re comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.
Finally, there’s the ever-popular conviction that we’re still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn’t judge one person against another, he doesn’t grade on the curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we’re really, truly sinners, because we see people so much worse than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we’re just so gosh-darn nice.
The problem in all these cases is that we’re comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly. And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.
Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home. But how repentance could be either joyous or vibrantly true is a foreign idea to most of us, so let’s spend some more time learning why the early Christians valued it so.
In the third through the fifth centuries, men and women went into the wildernesses of Egypt and the Middle East to devote themselves wholly to prayer and ascesis. They are the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and are called “Abba” or “Amma,” affectionate terms for “father” and “mother.” There are hundreds of sayings and stories about these heroic desert-dwellers.
One of them, Abba Dioscorus, was once found weeping by a younger monk. When asked why he did so, Dioscorus replied, “I am weeping for my sins.” The young monk knew Dioscorus had led a valiant and holy life for many years, and said, “My father, you do not have any such sins.” Dioscorus told him, “Truly, my child, if I were allowed to see my sins, three or four men would not be enough to weep for them.”
“If I were allowed to see my sins.” The truth is that we cannot bear to see the selfish twists of our heart, our greed and self-pity and manipulativeness. God allows us a measure of merciful ignorance. “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says.
The starting point for the early church was this awareness of the abyss of sin inside each person, the murky depths of which only the top few inches are visible. God, who is all clarity and light, wants to make us perfect as he is perfect, shot through with his radiance. The first step in our healing, then, is not being comforted. It is taking a hard look at the cleansing that needs to be done.
This is not condemnation, but right diagnosis. It is not judgmentalism, because the judgment is evenly applied: All are sinners, all have fallen short. It is not false guilt, because a lot of the guilt we feel is in fact deserved; we are guilty. Forgiveness of past sins doesn’t cure the sickness in the heart that continues to yearn after more. We will remain sick until that healing begins, and it will be a lifelong process.
What a relief it is to admit this. Like the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, we have nothing more to conceal, no more self-justification, no more self-pity. We are fully known, even in the depths that we ourselves cannot see, cannot bear to see. Instead of hoping that God will love us for our good parts and pass over the rest, we know that he died for the bad parts, and will not rest till they are made right. The depth of our sin proves the height of his love, a height we cannot comprehend until we realize how desperately we need it. We are fully loved, and one day will be fully healed, brought into God’s presence without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.
What’s more, repentance enlarges the heart until it encompasses all earthly life, and the sorrow tendered to God is no longer for ourselves alone. Knowing our own sin, we pray in solidarity with all other sinners, even those who hurt us. With all creation we groan, crying out to God for his healing and mercy. He who does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his evil and live, puts his Spirit within us, and we too no longer desire any vengeance. Then our ability to love others, even our enemies, broadens like sunlight on the horizon.
The ancient Christian literature on repentance is beautiful—full of simplicity, humility, and spreading peace. There is nothing in it of masochism or despair. Those who know themselves to be so greatly forgiven are far from gloomy, but are flooded with joy and deep tranquility. Those who are forgiven much love much. They find it hard to hold grudges against others; they find it hard to hold any thing in this life very tightly. For the Christian, two things seem to be ever linked: sorrow over sin, and gratitude for forgiveness. Repentance is the source of life and joy.
The twentieth-century scholar Fr. Irenee Hausherr wrote about early Christians’ love of repentance: “The rough stalk of penthos-mourning was to be covered with so many flowers springing from its sap that the bitter root would almost be forgotten; yet it is always there, and necessary to the plant.” St. John Climacus, the seventh-century author of the spiritual classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent, coined this word for it: charmolypi, that is, “mourning joy” or “joy-making sorrow.” We might call it “sweet sorrow.”
Repentance is not mere fleshly sadness; sadness, in fact, is a sin. Abba Isaiah urged believers to be vigilant against that, because it “sets off numerous diabolical mechanisms until your strength is sapped. The sadness according to God, on the other hand, is joy, the joy of seeing yourself in God’s will… . Sadness according to God does not weigh on the soul, but says to it, ‘Do not be afraid! Up! Return!’ God knows that man is weak, and strengthens him.”
Terms from the ancient languages cast further light. The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means a transformation of the mind, whereby greater clarity and insight are obtained. It doesn’t refer to emotion. St. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” St. Hermas, in his book The Shepherd, written about A.D. 140, writes, “Repentance is great understanding.” Repentance is insight, not emotion.
The Hebrew word shub means to turn from the wrong path onto the right one. I once heard an overly enthusiastic retreat leader say, “Repentance means turning yourself completely around. It means turning around 360 degrees.” I could only agree that, in my case, too often that’s exactly what it means.
Fr. Alexander Men, an outspoken Russian priest who was assassinated in 1990, wrote, “The good news of Christ was preceded by a call to repentance … and the very first word of Jesus’ teaching was ‘Repent.’ Remember that in Hebrew this word means ‘turn around,’ ‘turn away from the wrong road.’ While in the Greek text of the Gospels, it is rendered by an even more resonant word, metanoite, in other words, rethink your life. This is the beginning of healing. Repentance is not a sterile ‘grubbing around in one’s soul,’ not some masochistic self- humiliation, but a re-evaluation leading to action… . The abscess must be lanced, otherwise there will be no cure.”
Our first step, then, is to decide where we want to go. If we are resolved to move daily further into union with Christ, we must be ready to face our sins, the things that hold us back, and to let God begin to heal them. Repentance is the way back to the Father. It is both the door and the path, and there is no other.