Repentance is a difficult journey in the modern world. Our psychologized culture has lost the language and the instinct of repentance. When such language and instinct last existed is itself a significant question.
A large measure of the language of repentance is found in the word repentance itself. It is a Latin cognate (coming into English through the French). Rooted in the Latin word paenetentia, repentance has long held associations with crime and punishment. Our prisons are penitentiaries, though repentance of a true sort is rarely their result. To be given a penance also has had a sense of a punishment given for sins forgiven.
This differs greatly from the original language of the New Testament in which repentance is metanoia, a change in the mind (nous). The word nous, in Eastern Christian tradition, is often used interchangeably with the word heart. Repentance is an inner change of heart. Repentance is not concerned with clearing our legal record but with being changed – ultimately into the likeness of Christ.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10).
The language of repentance is part of a forensic legacy within a segment of Christian history that has marked our culture. To hear Christ say in Scripture, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is often misheard – with the forensic message embedded in our language replacing the language of the heart proclaimed by Christ. Thus the Christian who seeks to follow the gospel (in English) finds that he has to make an effort to re-translate what he hears. This deeper matter of repentance (metanoia) is heard even in the prophets of the Old Testament:
“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,“Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments;return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm (Joel 2:12-13).
The inner life of the modern world has largely been surrendered to the practice of psychology. I have no argument with psychology – its goal of mental health is important and the relief offered to many is a great mercy. But psychology has long worked with a variety of “inner roadmaps,” in which one theorist’s guess is as good as another’s. Freud’s theories of the human inner world have provided many of the words and concepts of our modern, inner-life. Ego and complex, obsession and projection, introvert and extrovert, and a host of other such words are the legacy of theorists such as Freud and Jung as well as others. Not all of their maps agree (in fact most don’t). They are imaginary accounts of how the mind works – are drawn out of reflection on actual cases but are still the work of imagination. Other “inner” words have even stranger origins. There are words such as melancholy and unbalanced (and others) that are rooted in medieval theories of the bodily humours. These theories seem laughable to the modern mind – but their language persists.
The fathers of the Church – particularly those who strove the most deeply for repentance (found predominantly in the desert tradition of the ascetics) – borrowed the language of their own day, as well as that of Scripture. Terms from neo-Platonism were borrowed and redefined in accordance with Christian tradition. The result is the language of the canons and the patristic writings. Most of the “road map” that is attached to these words is an experiential map. It is a reflection on how the heart changes in practice that dominates the teaching of the desert fathers and the tradition that flows from their labors. Theory is not driven by a priori assumptions about the constructs of man’s inner life. Thus there is no particular account of the mechanics of the inner life, other than a description given from experience – what works.
But the coherence of this patristic language is found in its common assumption that the human heart (nous) – the core of our being – is capable of change and can indeed be conformed to the image of Christ. Thus the goal of repentance is this very metanoia – a change of heart. There is nothing within modern psychology that reflects this particular concern (although some existential theorists come close).
Modern man is not predisposed to think about a change of heart. We think of psychological wholeness or well-being, but we do not have a language of conformity to Christ. We do speak of “hardness of heart,” but we know very little about how such a heart is changed.
This creates difficulties for us. Our temptation is to translate the language of the Church into concepts with which we are more familiar. Those coming to confession often give evidence of our psychologized world. We not only confess our sins, but we often want to give a small psychological analysis of where our sins came from and a progress report on how we are doing. (I have often thought that this makes a confession sound much like a monologue from Woody Allen, the comedian).
So, how do we repent?
The Scriptures give one of the clearest examples of how we should think about repentance. The encounter of John the Baptist with the crowds who came to and heard his message of repentance contain an interesting exchange:
Then he [John the Baptist] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So the people asked him, saying, “