Few terms in our modern world evoke more disdain than the term “repent.” Upon hearing the word, many envision a long bearded, wild-eyed man carrying a placard that reads, “Repent! The end is near!” To many repent means complete upheaval of life to become a religious zealot. Is that what it means to repent and, if so, why would anyone repent in the first place?
The Bible paints a very different picture of what it means to repent. The Greek word for repent is metanoia which means a change of mind or thinking. A change of mind does not simply happen. It is typically preceded by pain, crisis, and brokenness. We are stubborn creatures and until we experience pain and misery we resist changing. The status quo, no matter how dysfunctional and unproductive, reigns supreme in our lives. So, repentance must first be preceded by pain and brokenness. That prepares the soil of the heart for sowing the seed of repentance.
More than thinking, repentance is incomplete without changed behavior. Consider with me the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. He left home prideful, arrogant, and disdainful of his upbringing. Pain and misery in the form of a famine and no one to rescue him caused him to be broken. He longed for pig food to fill his stomach. Then follows one of the greatest phrases in the Bible where it declares, “when he came to his senses . . . “(15:17). The famine and the lack of rescue have done their jobs. The fog of delusional thinking has lifted and the clear sunlight of truth has engulfed him. He has begun the first stage in the two stage process of repentance; he has been broken and humbled.
The second stage of repentance still awaits him. After a self-talk conversation, he gets up, leaves the pigs, and walks home to his father. Not content to simply talk about his poor estate in the pigpen, the prodigal son changes his behavior by taking action. He left home prideful and arrogant and disdainful of his upbringing. He returns humbled and changed. His father says he was dead and is now alive! The father sees true repentance in his son.
We all need to repent when we walk away from God. He waits for us to return and runs to embrace us with arms open wide,