“Repent” is a word that I can’t help but hear in my head with an angry southern accent. This no doubt goes back to a few brief months I spent attending a fundamentalists Baptist school in Midland Texas during my sixth grade year. I had begged my parents to let me go to a Christian school thinking that it would help me in my growing faith, because at that time I had felt the call of God to become a preacher when I grew up. Those few months at that school proved otherwise. Rather than help me into a deeper relationship with God they exposed me to a rigid fundamentalist religion that had me in detention nearly every day of the week for the smallest of offenses (one time I got detention for mentioning the band The Beatles in a conversation). One of the regularly scheduled gatherings at that school was a chapel service that frequently featured preachers who would describe in morbid detail the horrors of hell that awaited anyone who did not say the sinner’s prayer. So week after week I would hear “repent!” As a sixth grader I didn’t have a very big list of sins of which to repent but I got “saved” every week because wanted to make sure I didn’t end up in hell. Looking back I see that my initial understanding of repentance was not very conducive to following Jesus or spiritual growth because it was entirely rooted in fear.
I suspect that many in our world share a similar aversion to this popular idea of repentance. But what if repentance was actually something different. I have come to believe that it is and that in fact our ideas of repentance need to repent and come to Jesus.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son we see the classical picture of repentance:
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20).
The younger son had squandered everything that the father had given him. He had followed the path of sinful living to its destructive conclusion. Destitute, hungry and tired he came to his senses and remembered his father. The Greek word for repentance – metanoia means to rethink or reconsider. The younger son began to reconsider his life as contrasted to life in the father’s house and began the long journey of returning home no doubt wondering how he was going to get back in his father’s good graces. "I’m not worthy to be called his son, maybe he will let me have a job where I can work to pay my debts off. Maybe I can at least survive better there than I am now."
I think most of us turn to the Lord in this way. We see where our choices have led us. We see how we have hurt ourselves and let others down. Yet this first stage of repentance isn’t based on our love for the Father but rather the mess we’ve made of our lives. While this is an important part of rethinking our lives it is certainly not the end of repentance because what we read next in the story dismantles all of our preconceived ideas of God as being punitive, angry, or even willing to let us work for his blessings.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:21-24)
This father was not interested in the son’s idea of hiring him as a servant and doesn’t even seem interested in acknowledging his remorse over how he had wasted everything the father gave him. The father showed a scandalous mercy towards the wayward son. He reconciled him instantly with all of the privileges of being a son, and not only that but with a party, barbecue and a band. And this is precisely where a whole other type of rethinking (repentance) is going to be required of the son.
After the reconciliation to the father and the community, after the long night of celebration, when the music has faded and the last scraps of smoked meat have been cleaned from the tables this son will now have to learn a new way of life based on the father’s love. Thus begins the life-long journey of repentance, the continued rethinking of everything based on the new reality of being reconciled and in relationship with the father. This second stage of repentance is not about self-preservation or objectifying the father to get his blessings but rather being ruthless with every thought and action within that stands against the truth of God’s reconciling love.
The book of Acts recounts the apostle Paul’s conversion. He was riding on the road to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus when he actually bumped into the risen Lord. The Jesus he met on that road was not vindictive or punitive but rather the God of grace and truth. Jesus lets him in on the fact that while Paul had been thinking that he was fighting for God all of those years he was actually fighting God himself. Like the younger son, Paul re-though the path that he was on and embraced Christ. What we see in the writings of Paul throughout the New Testament is the continual rethinking of everything in the world in the light of Jesus and the kingdom of God: relationships, culture, social order, government, etc.
Why is it that we so often limit repentance to a one time act, a prayer, or an altar call at the end of a service. True repentance must involved rethinking everything in our lives from politics to sex to business to how we see others and ourselves in the light of the resurrected king. It won’t do to get back in the father’s house if we just go on trying to earn his love because then we will just take up the ways of the older brother who was in the house and every bit as alienated from the father as the younger son had been yet all dressed up in performance, religion, and objectification. Better to get on believing the outrageously good news of the gospel and let it free us from everything that has kept us from that reality.
I spent most of my teenage years running, like the prodigal son, from the father's house. When I surrendered to Christ 20 years ago it was much like the young son of that parable. I tried for a few years to work for God, to gain his approval with my discipline and service but as the years went on began to experience a different kind of repentance of which I will never finish 'til I meet Jesus face to face. This repentance has meant that I have had to rethink the way I read the Bible, the way I view justice, the way I treat others, as well as my doctrine, culture and how I engage with the world. This rethinking is scary as I see how attached I am to certain ideas that oppose the ways of Jesus, yet I am held in the midst of it by the ruthless love of Christ in which there is no fear. I know not where all of this rethinking life in the light of Christ will take me, but I suspect I am in good company, because who of those original followers of Christ would have imagined where the master would take them. So here's to rethinking, to repenting, to wrestling through muck and mire with the love and truth of Jesus.