Repentance is a loaded word in Orthodox Christianity. It means far more than just being sorry for doing something wrong. To the Orthodox, repentance means feeling in our hearts the madness and guilt of our sins. It means acknowledging those we have offended and wronged, both our fellow man and God Himself. And most importantly, it means a change in our thoughts and in our way of life, an about-face in which we utterly reject sin and embrace virtue and holiness. In this post, we explore the true nature of repentance, and how we can cultivate this transformation in our spiritual lives.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
In Biblical Hebrew, the idea of repentance is represented by two verbs:
- shuv (to return)
- nicham (to feel sorrow)
In the New Testament, the word translated as ‘repentance‘ is the Greek word metanoia, “to think differently after”. In other words, repentance means a change of mind/heart, a fundamental transformation of man’s vision of the world and of himself and his sins, and a new way of loving other and God. This change of mind must be sincere. We cannot simply say, “Forgive me, Lord,” with our mouth, while at the same time refusing to change our behavior and not feeling remorse and sorrow for our sin.
Moreover, true repentance involves recognizing our sinfulness and working to free ourselves from our sins and turn toward God. “Repentance,” says Saint Basil the Great, “is salvation, but lack of understanding is the death of repentance.” One of the best scriptural examples of this kind of repentance is the parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11-32.
The nature of repentance
Repentance takes a lifetime
Repentance is not a unique, one-time event. Rather, it is the constant renewal of the commitment of baptism, dying to the world and rising and living a life in Christ. St. Isaac the Syrian once said, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits”. Repentance is a gift from God, one that helps us focus on the world to come and allows us to develop an authentic, deep desire for Him.
Therefore, true repentance takes practice, insight and experience; it takes a lifetime of walking with God. Throughout our lives, as we continue to grow, we learn to see our own sins and see how far we have fallen from the standard set before us: to be like Christ. If we’ve fallen short of this standard, then we must repent. Like the father of the prodigal son, God stands ready to forgive us and welcome us back with open arms.
Every day of our lives we should take steps toward cultivating true repentance. Through daily prayer, Scripture readings, fasting, and charity, and participation in the divine services of the Church. All of these tools the Church provides, help us foster a deepening life of repentance.
+Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains this beautifully:
We need to discover the true meaning of preparation as the very focus of our spiritual life, as that spiritual effort which always reveals to us our unworthiness and makes us therefore desire the Sacrament of healing and forgiveness, and which by revealing to us the unfathomable depth of Christ’s love for us, makes us love Him and desire to be united with Him.
And if we ‘rediscover’ all this, we shall also discover that, in fact, the entire life of the Church has always been that preparation: that all her rules—liturgical and spiritual, penitential and disciplinary—have indeed no other reason for existence but to help us in making our own life a constant preparation […] for the joy and fulness of the ‘day without evening’ of God’s eternal kingdom.
Repentance should be happening constantly
In the life of a Christian, there is no “time to repent” versus the “rest of my time”. To create such a compartmentalization is, according to the Church, the work of demons to tear asunder our attempts at lasting communion with God.
To ensure our repentance is genuine, we must ascertain whether it is fleeting or spurious. Do we find ourselves only repenting during certain times of year, or when things get really bad for us? Demons often use virtue against us, diverting our course by making us believe we are making progress, when, in fact, we are merely wobbling from side to side. If our progress is not constant or consistent, these are warning signs that we may not be on the path to true repentance after all.
Repentance is dynamic
Sin is a relational act, one in which we damage not only ourselves and the person we have wronged, but the entire body of Christ. In much the same way, repentance is a dynamic act of responsibility to God and to other men. We do not ruminate in narcissistic self-reflection. We repent in the face of God; and we repent in communion with others, in the Church.
Repentance in the early Church was, in fact, a solemn public act of reconciliation, through which a sinner was reintegrated into the Body of Christ, which our sins have torn asunder. For “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). And it is through the faith of the community that the individual is readmitted, forgiven, and healed (James 5:16; Luke 5:20; cf. Matthew 9:2 and Mark 2:5).
Sin (and evil) divides, repentance conciliates, and confession affirms the conciliation.
Repentance is a pathway to self-discovery
“Open to me the gate of repentance.”
Repentance is the gateway to oneself, to one’s fellowman, and to heaven. It leads inwards, but it also leads outwards by leading inwards. The world ceases to rotate round the self and begins to gravitate towards God and others.
Sin has the opposite effect. It blocks the way both inwards and outwards. To repent and confess is to break out of this restriction and to recover oneself. The world thereupon ceases to rotate around “me” and begins to gravitate towards the other, centering on God. Then, everyone and everything no longer exist for myself but for the glory of God, in the joy of the Resurrection. It is here we discover the depth of God’s love and His presence in our midst.
Repentance means submitting to the will of God
The word for “confess” in Greek (omología, ὁμολογῶ) means more than simply accepting, recognizing, or witnesses an event (in this case, a sin). In fact, that meaning, common in our society today, was not the original meaning of the word. The point is not of admitting, more or less reluctantly, an “unrecognized” sin. Rather, repentance/confession is an acceptance of and submission to the divine Logos (exomologesis) or Word of God, with Whom we seek to commune.
To confess is not so much to recognize and expose a failure as to go forward and upward, to respond from within to the calling of God. Created in the image and likeness of God, each of us bears before ourselves and in ourselves that image and likeness. In repenting, we do not so much look forward as reflect and react to what lies before and beyond us.
Repentance cultivates tears
The Fathers of the Church speak of an intimate link between repentance and tears. St. Gregory the Theologian writes: “All must shed tears, all must be purified, all must ascend” (Oration 19,7 PG 35:1049D-1052A). Symeon the Theologian is even more definite: “Remove tears and with them you remove purification; and without purification no one is saved” (Catechesis 29).
The Fathers often use the word penthos (mourning) to illustrate the condition of a repentant soul. Penthos consists in mourning for the loss of God’s presence, sorrow at His absence and a thirst for Him. Man is in a state of bereavement; the Church Fathers and liturgical hymnology speak of Adam sitting opposite paradise in mourning over his bereavement and estrangement from God. But at the same time, tears are also a turning point in homecoming, a pledge of return, and a firstfruit of its joy. The longing for return from exile is also an anticipation of the glory to come. Tears demonstrate the frontier between the present and the future.
Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition gives special prominence to the “gift of tears”. We can trace this tradition from the New Testament, through the Desert Fathers, to Saint John Climacus, to later times, with Symeon the New Theologian standing out as one of its most important witnesses. Our Lord says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Tears bespeak a promise, while also serving as proof of hope fulfilled, of sins forgiven. They are not only a way of purification, but also the consequence of purification through repentance.
Try, try, try again
Saint John of Kronstadt writes, “If you fall, rise and you shall be saved.” All of us sin constantly. We slip and fall, sometimes dozens of times a day. But it’s important that we get up immediately and continue walking toward God. No matter how many times we fall, we must get up and not look back. That sin you committed is now in the past. Repent, and the Lord will forgive. All you need to do is keep going, all the while asking for God’s help.
Learn to forgive yourself
It is okay to remember our past sins. Doing so serves as a warning for us, so we do not become prideful and fall into the same sin a second, third, or fiftieth time. But we must take care when remembering, because often we latch onto this memory and refuse to forgive ourselves for the sin we committed. If we truly meant it when we asked for forgiveness, God has already forgiven us. Therefore, we must learn to let go of our pride and forgive ourselves.
It is not just the recognition that things have gone wrong, but a realization that through Christ, they can be put right. ‘You fell,’ it is written, ‘now arise’ (Proverbs 24:16). And if you fall again, then rise again, without despairing at all of your salvation, no matter what happens.Saint Peter of Damascus
We must remember the abyss of God’s mercy and love for mankind. The demons will make you see the Lord’s face as terrible and unmerciful, rejecting your prayer and repentance. But remember His words, full of hope and boldness for us: “Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out;” and “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Repentance means a change of heart
Sin produces spiritual death, and the weight of sin on our souls can quickly become unbearable. If we do not confront our sinfulness and confess our sins, we distort and pervert our perception of reality. Through true repentance, we open the door to the Kingdom of God that resides within each of us. If we keep that door closed with a prideful heart and mind, none can enter and experience the Kingdom of God (Matthew 3:2; Luke 17:21).
When we truly repent, our behavior will change. By the grace of God, we will strive to defeat our passions and act the way our Lord wants us to live. No matter how many times we fall, we need to remember to get back up and try again. We also need to learn how to forgive ourselves and others as God forgives us.
Keep Reading: How To Prepare For Confession