Saturday, November 17, 2012

Defining Repentance on the Journey of Forgiveness

What constitutes repentance? The Gospels tell us that we must always forgive when those who have sinned against us (or disappointed us) repent of wrongdoing.  The Bible sets a precedent that repentance precedes forgiveness.  But what do we understand about the concept? As reviewed previously, Christians are called to confront others when wronged and must forgive when those who committed the wrong repent. For the Christian, forgiveness is non-optional. Review more about forgiveness HERE.
He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard!
If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
Complicated Repentance

As any parent knows and any person in an abusive relationship can tell you, repentance can mean many different things. Abusers will often feign repentance to escape the consequences of their actions, but they use the act as license to pick right back up where the left off, continuing to offend others as though their lip service allows them to do whatever they want with impunity. When the offended voice another complaint about their behavior, BOOM! The person who claimed to repent tries to dump the responsibility for the matter on to the offended, claiming that they are unforgiving. They use virtue as a means that allows them to sin and keep on sinning. I love Ayn Rand's quote about how such injustice causes a person to not only suffer the initial loss but to also continually bear a second kind of loss when justice is denied them. People who claim that this is godly to endure such injustice in the name of keeping peace cause the Kingdom of God to suffer violence. 
When one acts on pity against justice, it is the good whom one punishes for the sake of the evil; when one saves the guilty from suffering, it is the innocent whom one forces to suffer. There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit—and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

As we noted in the previous post, spiritual abusers or manipulators can use misunderstandings and preoccupation with image consciousness and the illusion of outward appearance to shame people by dissuading people from acknowledging offense in the first place. It creates an illusion of peace when none really exists. High demand religions also use feigned repentance to do much of the same thing, discouraging healthy conflict by shaming people into accepting poor treatment from one another. It keeps the wounded and the offended and the victims captive in the bondage of the Path of Denial, and forgiveness never takes place. In the name of following the Law of Love, those who manipulate others in such a way actually thwart love and prevent it from working healing and true reconciliation. As all spiritually abusive groups do, they trade in real unity for uniformity. Some gain some temporary benefits, and others suffer to provide that benefit. The same thing holds true with feigned repentance.


Defining Repentance

The Oxford English Dictionary describes repentance as the feeling or expression of sincere regret about wrongdoing; a feeling of penitence. But this is a general description. What do the specifics look like and how does one arrive at repentance?

The word “repent” in derives from the Greek metanoia which is a compound word that translates literally into “a change of mind.” Noia means “to think with your mind.”  Meta means “after” with the implication of  change such as it appears in the English word “metamorphosis.” The term can also be defined as “to think differently afterward.”. Actually, Romans 12:2 uses meta in the compound word metamorphoo for our English word of “transformed,” directing us to “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what (is) that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” Withn the Greek word itself, we can note the emphasis on the choice that a person makes when they express repentance in the process of forgiveness. And presumably, someone who has changed their mind will also follow through by changing their behavior.
 The Old Testament uses two verbs of shuv (to return) and nicham (to feel sorrow) which further deepens the meaning to include a sense of contrition. In the New Testament, we see this contrition depicted in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Repentance also includes the confession of wrongdoing to those who were harmed, just as the Jews went to the tabernacle to declare their repentance as they offered their sacrifice. Repentance involved the community in this sense, just as Saul depicts in 1 Samuel 15 when he humbly repents and asks Samuel to worship with him.

Under the old system of Judaism, they also practiced the concept of restitution and recompense through bonded service for loss that occurred, paying back double what was taken. Recompense even involved how one approached God to seek atonement. Recall again that forgiveness is a term that refers the cancellation of monetary debt, so it is curious to note that the Old Testament quantitated restitution, even calling for one fifth of the amount stolen to be added to the atonement offering that was given to the priest. Rather than some nebulous theory, restitution required something tangible and specific to be paid back to those who were harmed. In the same fashion in the New Testament, Zacchaeus spontaneously pledged without the need of prompting that he would restore fourfold what he had wrongfully taken from others in taxes when he repents to Jesus and places his faith in Him.

Talk is Cheap!
I was once taught that repentance involves four steps which corresponds well to these Jewish teachings and traditions: Conviction, Contrition, Confession, and Conversion. True repentance without all of these efforts (which include restitution as part of the conversion process) is considered incomplete. In the name of love, we should never forgo doing what is right by repairing the wrongs we have done when it is possible.


Patience, Love And Learning

As noted, insincere repentance and words of lip service do a grave injustice to the offended. This can be a difficult matter, and I find it fascinating that Jesus points out such a large number of times that a person must forgive.

Zazzle.com
I think that He does this to help us weed out those who do knowingly feign forgiveness when they feel absolutely no contrition for what they've done to others from those who are weak, immature, and unskilled. Forgiveness requires long suffering (patience) and teaches it to us in the process, one of the benefits that the Path of Healing brings to us when we follow it sincerely. Lets face it: we are stubborn creatures of habit, and we make mistakes and fail repeatedly as we master new skills. Consider that in learning a new manual skill that we might cause inconvenience to others until we learn to get that skill right. Some we never really master. We may have learned to stop spilling milk at the table when we were children, but we're very likely to spill something many times again, later on in our lives. Especially when we're learning and when we fail as a consequence of being human, that “seventy times seven” becomes very important to us. Repenting of failure helps re-orient us on our pursuit to mastery while showing others consideration.

How much more important is this patience to us when we learn new ways to treat one another, perhaps where this principle of repentance and forgiveness demonstrates the most value? When we change and grow, we have to let others around us know when they've hurt us, merely because we've decided to change the patterns of how we relate to one another. If you're dancing with a partner and you step on their toe, it's likely that both parties can observe the error without it being voiced. In relationships, the repentance/forgiveness process becomes vital, because we usually don't know much about how our behavior affects others without that feedback. Here again is another way that offense, repentance, and forgiveness can be framed as a very positive process of growth and healing.  We often need seventy times seven chances to work in us, and it works in both the one who repents and the one who forgives.

We must also consider that on our long journey of forgiveness and as we traverse the ongoing process of grief, matters that have wounded us deeply take time to heal.  The principle of long patience helps us again and again, as we reaffirm our commitment to forgive.  Though we need to draw on this compassion when people continue to repeat the same offenses, likewise, we often need to keep forgiving many times over for large offenses that have affected us so profoundly.  I spoke to a dear friend this week who divorced two years ago because of her husband's betrayal.  Though she has forgiven her husband and has released him unto God, there are still daily reminders of her loss.  Mail arrives in the mailbox, for example, and it seems that she can't get beyond the memories which bring up pain for her, even though her husband has been gone for a long time.  During these times, we need the comfort of knowing that Jesus fully appreciated how hard forgiveness can be and the sheer determination we need at times when we're doing the hard work of this kind of healing.  We can lean on the knowledge that Jesus knows intimately how difficult the process can be, leaning hard into the God of all comfort to find the perseverance we need. 

I must also add that we must consider, when we're ready and are not overcome with the anger of grief, that repentance may likely be a process for those who have offended us.  This is another reason why we must be patient in the Spirit of Love.  Sometimes, consequences must soften our hearts, and it can take time for us to really develop the full contrition that we need to make the changes in our behavior that back up repentance.  I think of Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.  It took a full night of work from those ghosts who mirrored Scrooge's image back to him, and it took time for the blinders to fall from his eyes.  It took time to open his heart.  When we are offended, consider that in the beginning of repentance, the fullness of it may not yet have come.  Though the person who offended us may give mental assent to forgiveness, it may not yet have transformed their heart for us.   Here also, we need seventy times seven determination to forgive and forgive again as God fills  us up with His patience and love when our own human qualities fail.

By graciously forgiving others in this process of discipline, we provide them with a mirror in which they can see themselves, and it helps all involved to grow. When we work through past hurts and commit to restoring relationships together, this willingness to forgive gives us discipline and structure.   Though it may seem like work to us because of our emotional pain, that place of difficult work fosters our mutual healing, love, and restoration.  Remember that this is a place of cooperation and humility, and it takes the participation and commitment of all involved.  In its fullness, repentance always includes that element of community.

Now we have a picture of the ideal.  But what of the less than ideal?


Much more to come on
distinguishing true and trustworthy repentance
from its empty counterfeit