"Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death."
We've all seen those sandwich-board signs (or their cartoon counterpart) where someone invokes us to "Repent for the End is Near." Repentance, if we think about it at all, tends to be negative--it's the rude, shrill exhortation of a self-appointed prophet claiming to care about our eternal life, but coming across to us instead as shaming and judgmental. Can "repentance" be a good word? Can it, in fact, be life-giving and holistic? I think it can.
These past few weeks I've been teaching on the goodness of the Christian message, the gospel as we call it. Tracing its origins from the Old Testament to its radical nature in the preaching of Jesus Christ (particularly in Mark 1:15), my goal is to blow our understanding of the gospel out of the water, to smash old categories of thought in which this glorious message has been confined, and to give us a sense of its radical, cosmic implications. Can't get into all that here (you'll have to go to www.fpcboulder.org/early_devo.html to dig further, I'm afraid); but let me just probe for a bit this word "repentance."
For much of its use in the Bible, "repentance" is a pretty secular, non-religious word. It just means "make a U-turn." Seriously! You're headed west on Canyon Boulevard and you realize you've missed the 29th St. Mall. You need to make a U-turn at 15th Street and head east. It can also mean "change your mind or heart" about something. We used to feel one way about something (a candidate or an issue, for example); now, in light of new knowledge, we change our minds.
When we reach the religious realm, "repent" means to quit heading one way (the wrong way, away from God), to turn around instead, and head the other way. It means turn--turn from death to life, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It means to turn away from all that is ultimately futile and empty to that which brings fulfillment and joy.
Now here's the big point: repentance is not a once and for all event! It's not like you do it only once, upon your initial conversion or turning to God. No, the best way to understand repentance is to see it as ongoing, a lifestyle of learning to turn away. It means to detect on increasingly deeper levels that which is unhealthy inside us and to turn instead to God's better way in Christ. At first, this means for us who come from other backgrounds (I wasn't raised Christian), that we need to turn away from the grosser forms of immorality and damaging self-centeredness. It means initially identifying those self-defeating patterns of gossip or rage or impatience or substance abuse or sex and turning those over to God in pursuit of health and wholeness.
But as we progress in the Christian spiritual life, God takes us deeper, down into the morass of our sin-soaked lives. We begin to address our age-old issues of motivation: we see how pretense and hypocrisy can characterize much of our Christianity. We then learn to cop to pride and vanity and arrogance, much of these played out--sadly, we realize--on the stage of our church activity. As we go on repenting, God peels off layers of sin in our lives like desiccated onion skins. One after another and sometimes painfully, God scours off the hardened husks of our false lives, stripping us down to the fresh newness he longs to expose in us. And repentance, this ongoing lifestyle of turning from attitudes and behaviors, thoughts and habits, and turning to God's new life, is our means of participating.
To use another metaphor, it's like pumicing off an old callous or even brushing and flossing our teeth--routine behaviors which we do because we know that health lies beneath.
The added benefit to all of this is that the character produced by ongoing repentance is winsome and approachable, humble and tender. People softened by sincere, repeated repentance (and the consequent experience of God's grace) have about themselves an attractive, welcoming spirit. This spirit draws Christian and non-Christian alike. Out of characters softened by repentance and new life, God is able to do some incredible things in us and through us. I suspect that it is to the degree that we are regularly repenting that we will grow in grace and be spiritually transformed.