Repentance is a key vocabulary term of the Christian faith, as it is grounded upon the very words of Jesus that starts his public ministry: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven/God is near.” People came to John the Baptizer to be publicly baptized for repentance to prepare for He who was to come. When the church of Jerusalem heard Peter’s report on the Holy Spirit being bestowed upon the Gentiles, their first response of praise is “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”1 After having to painfully rebuke the whole Corinthian church and then having to explain his actions, the Apostle Paul goes at length to distinguish between two forms of grief, the godly version of which produces repentance.2 At the center of all of these episodes of repentance is a specific focus, on God in His Kingdom, His Son, His Spirit, His action in bringing about repentance, and His will in taking God’s perspective.
This God-centeredness is important to the New Testament definition of repentance. Commonly, we can portray repentance as pointing to a wide array of actions or attitudes such as saying “sorry,” acts of making amends, trying to correct one’s behavior, feeling terrible about one’s actions, etc. In correcting for the over-emphasis on behavior, many scholars think about repentance as orientation. At first blush, the orientation would seem to be consistent with a God-centeredness. Repentance is about rightly aligning ourselves with God, being focused in the right direction. But there is a distinct problem with this: repentance in the New Testament is understood as behavioral and not simply orientational.
John the Baptizer tells the Pharisees that their repentance, which they would have gladly done as a public act to show how contrite they are, must be accompanied with fruit/actions.3 Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:11 believes godly repentance to lead to certain corrective attitudes and behaviors. Paul explanation about his message to the Gentiles in Acts 26:20 included his purpose of bringing the Gentiles to repentance and turning to God to do deeds consistent with repentance. Jesus to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:5 warns them about judgment if they do not repent so as to do the works they used to do. Repentance is deeply connected to our behaviors.
Nevertheless, it is appropriate to state that repentance isn’t merely behavior management. μετανοεω is a cognitive term that relates to changing one’s thinking, attitude, etc. How can repentance be both cognitive and behavioral? When repentance pertains to the way we change the evaluation our behaviors; repentance is about a changing of attitude about our behaviors, lifestyles, etc. It is to no longer accept them as the right, good, fair, appropriate, etc. actions we might have been inclined to think them in the past, sometimes as the result of the resolving of cognitive dissonance by positively evaluate our behaviors in order to maintain positive evaluations of ourselves, but to recognize there is something fundamentally off about our actions and the motives that existed behind them. Repentance is a recognition that our behaviors have been wrongly guided, and thus to desire and seek to align our future life in accordance with God’s will. In short, repentance is the change of attitude where we accept God’s perspective on our wrongful actions and misdirected life, so that our future actions will come into alignment and attunement with God’s will.
But this type of repentance can be particularly difficult for at least four reasons.
Firstly, to see our actions negatively can entail a strongly negative evaluation of ourselves. If we have either engaging is a lot of wrongful behaviors or we are highly sensitive to any negative evaluation of our behavior, the thought of re-evaluating our actions can be very painful, as it can be a deep challenge to our ego, self-esteem, and pride. For this reason, we often automatically avoid repentance. Instead of dealing with such a painful emotional step, we can be tempted to try to substitute such a negative evaluation with the behaviors we associate with repentance, such as saying sorry, making amends, etc. so as to hastily make up for problems to quickly restore our own esteem. A predilection towards narcissism resists accepting any faults except those that can be quickly redeemed and restored because of the pain that will come with such a negative self-evaluation.
Secondly, while repentance is to humble oneself, one can resist it for fear of being humiliated. We all know of people who can excoriate people for their faults in exaggerated and extreme ways; far from simply pointing out the problematic behaviors from others, these people will take molehills of failures and make them into mountains, and take mountains of failures and turn them into whole mountain ranges. This creates a subtly different resistance to repentance than narcissistic resistance. It is rooted in a belief in abuse from others that comes with acknowledging one’s failures. Having been humiliated, humility can seem quite threatening.
Thirdly, if we recognize our own faults and failures in the eyes of God along with the breaking of trust with others, that means we may feel we are no longer entitled to certain privileges, statuses, rights, etc. Sometimes this feeling is true, such as abusers no longer being entitled the positions or power, and sometimes this feeling is false, such as a person who lost their cool in a relationship once feeling they are no longer worthy to be in a relationship. Nevertheless, the fear in the loss of privilege, status, access, opportunities, etc. can hinder our acceptance of our own behaviors, as our feeling of survival is threatened.
Fourthly, repentance can be difficult because of the necessary behaviors that come with repentance. While there is no set rule of what behaviors come with each and every event of repentance, repentance does entail taking the appropriate behaviors to address the wrong done in one’s relationship with God and with others. This would mean admitting one’s fault to those one has harmed, doing what one can to address harms and damages that were wrongfully incurred (while recognizing that some harms and damages are irreparable and can never be undone), publicly admitting fault, stepping away from one’s positions of authority, etc. etc. Our lack of willingness to appropriately address the actions because it might entail a loss of face, reputation, resources, etc. etc. so we are tempted to either refrain from doing anything with our repentance except promising in our mind to never do it again or either take the easy route out by only taking the actions that do not cost us what we value, even though those actions that cost us are appropriate if not important for addressing happened. As a result, we don’t take the step of actualizing our repentance in action, never allowing it to form a new set of habits and attitudes, but our “repentance” exists only in our mind as something that is not really connected to and influencing our behavior.
There may be other reasons for resistance to repentance, but the core take away is this: the reason for resistance to repentance are diverse and on the surface, one should not automatically jump to conclusions.4 For instance, narcissistic resistance may look similar to resistance to humiliation, but they can diverge critically in the inner, unseen life as narcissism entails a positive self-evaluation, often rooted in a narcissistic supply of other people’s positive-self evaluation, whereas resistance to humiliation entails a fight against the belief that others are out to threaten us. While most narcissists also resist humiliation, not all people resisting humiliation are narcissistic; sometimes resistance to humiliation is often resisting narcissists who are doing the humiliating. Therefore, if it is indeed necessary to discern the reasons for resistance5 then it can not be known from initial appearances but it takes getting to know the person(s), which can be risky as it entails getting to know sinners.
Most of the reasons people resist are outside of our influence. You can’t make a narcissist recognize the truth of their own sins. People who fear being humiliated, even if there is no one seeking to humiliate, are commonly disinclined to make that step. People who have a basic fear of well-being and survival will not engage in true repentance. People who value things other than God’s type of love and faithfulness/trustworthiness will avoid taking the appropriate responses. Nevertheless, there are a few things we can rightly do: speak with both truth and mercy. We speak with truth only insofar as it is necessary to bring something to light that has been covered in darkness, but not to beat a person down. We speak with mercy not to shield others from the consequences of their failures nor to steal the gift of repentance from them, but only to make them know that repentance is safe enough that you will not be abandoned, even if it means there is some necessary losses that come with repentance. Grace and truth do not automatically beget repentance, but it is an act of fertilizing the ground such that repentance may sprout and the fruit of repentance may grow. And it is this life of grace and truth that offers a mirror of God’s grace and truth, leading to the possibility that repentance will become God-centered
- Acts 11:18
- 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
- Matthew 3:8
- In fact, if we are quick to assign reasons for resistance, we are either projecting ourselves and/or transferring our experience of others, telling us more about ourselves and our experience of others than the person in question.
- sometimes that just isn’t our concern unless it pertains to situations that are under our moral responsibility an authority to address