A Fresh View of Repentance
by Ray DeGraw
The Bible Dictionary defines repentance as: “a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world” (emphasis added). That is absolutely fascinating, and I want to explore that definition in this post by focusing once more on the traditional view of God’s perfection and how seeing it differently can be part of “the truth (that) shall make you free.”
As I mentioned in a previous post, perfection as used in the Bible is defined in the Greek as being “complete, whole, fully developed.” Therefore, being imperfect means being “incomplete, part, partially developed” – being, to some degree, an unfinished, natural (wo)man. This leads to an interesting meaning of repentance that is radically different than what was taught in ancient Israel (the Law of Moses perspective), with its emphasis on works, and still is taught as an impossible ideal within most of Christianity.
The classic definition of repentance, summarized as the steps of repentance in Mormon culture, can be summarized in the following way:
Feel sorrow for your mistakes, make restitution for them and stop making them.
It is, in a very real way, a process of surgery – attempting to identify, cut out, and discard the bad from within us, so that we will stop making mistakes.
This can be incredibly destructive for three reasons:
1) It can confuse sin (things we choose to do or not do, knowing we should be acting differently) with transgression (mistakes or violations of a law that are not intentional actions or that are done out of ignorance) – which means that people can spend enormous time and energy beating themselves up about and trying to rid themselves of weaknesses that often are beyond their control without outside help – things that have been paid for already by the Atonement;
2) It assumes that we are competent surgeons (which deserves an entire thread all by itself);
3) It takes one’s focus away from the powerful nature of true repentance (the changing of one’s mind and view which changes one’s very nature).
I need to step back at this point and emphasize a critical point:
Repentance IS a process of change that involves ridding ourselves of those tendencies that keep us from being Christ-like. It DOES include gaining control over those things that cause our sins and transgressions. However, it does NOT need to be a guilt-inducing, depression-causing, overwhelming chore.
Our traditional view of repentance is one important aspect of the process, but it deals with and is most effective in addressing habitual and grievous sins – those actions which must be stopped immediately through intense effort and, in many cases, explicit avoidance of situations and substances. It does not deal with changing our natures; rather, it deals with suppressing those natures. It is what I have come to call reactive repentance – and it is focused on stopping what is occurring on a regular basis.
What I am discussing in this post is what I call proactive repentance – and it is focused on overcoming the natural weakness that lies at the heart of the separation from God that most of us experience. Most of us are not involved in lots of habitual, grievous sins. Though we all are sinners and come short of the glory of God, the gap between us and God generally is one that, according to our scriptures, can be overcome through a process of refinement rather than radical surgery.
That type of refinement happens when repentance no longer is viewed as the companion to the type of perfection that I described previously – when repentance ceases to mean eliminating all mistakes and walking completely in lock-step with a detailed list of dos and don’ts without ever stumbling. Let me emphasize again that repentance means changing one’s VIEW about God, oneself, and the world. It means SEEING the process of becoming like God differently – in the empowering way taught by Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount.
To illustrate what I mean, consider again that the admonition in Matthew 5:48 to be perfect means to be whole, complete and fully developed, but also consider that it comes at the end of a chapter that lists specific attributes and actions (especially in the Beatitudes) – and the admonition itself begins with the word therefore. What does this mean? It means because of what has come before – or through what has come before.
In that light, Matthew 5:48 says:
“Be ye (through what I have said so far) complete, whole, fully developed, even as your Father which is in heaven is complete, whole, fully developed.
This changes the entire meaning of repentance – since it says that reconciling to God is a process of acquiring the characteristics listed by Jesus (in that chapter and elsewhere) that lead to perfection: adding them to your character, not cutting out pieces of yourself and assuming the holes will be filled somehow or suppressing tendencies by sheer force of will. It means repentance is the process of closing the gap between what we are naturally (incomplete, part, partially developed) and what He has commanded us to become (complete, whole, fully developed). It is a process of addition (becoming more) – not subtraction (becoming less). It is a process focused on acquisition, not elimination.
Think of a bucket full of liquid that is, to some degree, impure. The goal is to make all of the liquid in the bucket pure. You could attempt to do so by identifying the impurities and trying to remove them with just the use of your hands while not removing the pure liquid – or you could allow an expert chemist to add chemicals to your bucket that would isolate the impurities and then to add new liquid, forcing the impurities to spill from the bucket. Each is an effort to change the composition within the bucket, but the first is destined to produce frustration and heartache, while the other heals, fills and never depletes. In this light, repentance (seeing ourselves and God with a “fresh view”) is an inherently impurity-separating process.
To make this practical:
If you struggle with a temper that manifests itself through yelling at others, you can try to overcome this tendency in one of two ways.
1) You can take the classic approach and exert tremendous effort to recognize when you are about to lose it and, in that moment, exert even more effort to control that tendency by suppressing it – assuming that if you suppress it often enough you will gain total control over it. The problem is that the temper has not been eliminated; it simply has been suppressed, which means it still is there. When that effort to suppress fails and the temper flares again, you feel like a failure, since your effort couldn’t stop the outburst.
2) On the other hand, with a different VIEW, you can look more deeply than just at the manifestation (your temper) and focus on the cure (e.g., becoming meek and patient) in all aspects of your life. You can focus on the character traits that Jesus has identified as part of becoming perfect and allow Him to help you rid yourself of the underlying cause of the action. Acquiring meekness and patience will replace the underlying cause of the loss of temper, which, along with other benefits in other areas of weakness, will begin to eliminate the transgression with which you are struggling.
You repent (change) by giving Him your burden (a temper) and agreeing to carry his yoke instead (walking humbly and patiently with Him). You repent by ceasing to try to lessen who you are (eliminate part of yourself) and allowing Him to increase who you are (adding perfecting characteristics). In short, you repent by losing (your view of) yourself and finding (His view of) you.
This changing of view probably will not be immediate, and as a comprehensive effort surely will be a journey of your entire lifetime, but it is worth any effort. For myself, I have chosen to tackle this process in a very simple but systematic way (described here), but each person needs to construct the journey in whatever way makes sense individually.
- How do you approach repentance?
- How have you changed your view?