Positive Discipline

What is Repentance?

Pay attention and try to follow along, it’s about to get real. Real on repentance!

What does it mean to repent?

The Definition of Repent in the Bible

Do you know what it means to repent? 
I know I misunderstood it for a very long time. 

What repentance is not

The English definitions of the word repent most often follow along the lines of “feeling remorse or regret” or being disgusted by and turning away from your sins. Definitions like this one, which declare that repentance involves our efforts or resolve to do better are inadequate at best. While how you feel might be a part of the experience of repenting, this definition is misleading. 

Repentance is not about our emotions, our sin, our efforts, or resolve. It’s about our response to a tremendously loving God who is tapping us on the shoulder and calling us to turn and go another way.

Repentance is not about our emotions, our sin, our efforts, or resolve. It's about our response to a tremendously loving God who is tapping us on the shoulder and calling us to turn and go another way. #repent #ChristianBlogger Click To Tweet

Repent – Definition in Greek

The Greek definition for repent is μετάνοια, said metanoia (hence my punny title “meta-annoyance”). The closest literal English meaning is to have a change of mind, but might be better said, “to think differently afterwards” or “changing your mind after being with,” according to the HELPS word study and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. ​

Jonah – A Bible Story About Repentance

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Jonah in the Bible, I’ll give a brief review. Jonah was called by God to go and to the city of Nineveh and warn them that they had angered God because of their wickedness.

This sounded quite unappealing to Jonah. So he decided to opt out, and hopped on board a ship going literally the other direction. 

God, of course, would not be thwarted. So He sent a violent storm that threatened all on board the ship, except apparently for Jonah, who slept through the storm. 

The rest of the men on the ship were so impressed by the storm, they were convinced someone had pissed off a god. 

In their search for who was to blame, they woke up Jonah. It came to light that Jonah was to blame and has angered his God. Jonah confessed and asked to be thrown overboard. ​

The crew, despite what Jonah had brought upon them, was reluctant to send him to his death. Finally they acquiesced, with fear and reverence towards Jonah’s God, and threw Jonah into the sea. When the sea calmed they became even more awestruck, made sacrifices, and vowed themselves to Jonah’s God. 

​In what is often the most talked-about part of this story, Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish inside which he stays for three days and three nights.  

Jonah - a story of repentance

Jonah prays, gets spit out onto land, and is told by God, once again, to go to Nineveh. So Jonah does. He walks through the city shouting that Nineveh will be overturned in 40 days.

The people of Nineveh immediately respond with fear and respect. Even the king gets off of his throne and calls for the whole city to humble themselves, turn from their evil ways, and call out earnestly to God in hopes that He will show them mercy. And God does. So that’s most of Jonah’s story, but there are many more Bible stories that teach us what repentance is and how to repent.

My Struggle with Repentance

I think I’m having a Jonah moment – being woken up at 3:30 am this morning! I’ve felt a conviction lately – I believe God is calling me to speak up and call some people to repentance. I’m not avoiding it because I don’t agree with God or revere Him. I just don’t want to face the backlash of telling people what they don’t want to hear. And there’s also a part of me that fears the emotional process involved for me.

​​So I’ve been procrastinating and letting other activities take priority. I’ve been avoiding what I ought to do, but in discomfort. And like having a full bladder, that can only be ignored for so long. 

In 2 Timothy 4:2-4 Paul tells Timothy, “Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

(Emphasis mine) “Whether convenient or not” it says. 

So I’m accepting this little tap on the shoulder as an incentive to keep moving forward despite any inconvenience or discomfort. In a “meta” sort of way, this experience of avoiding my calling helps me begin down this path to speak up.

Jesus Preaches Repentance

The very first thing Jesus preached was, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near! ” (Matthew 4:17).  The verse before (verse 16) helps underscore what he says, quoting the prophecy from Isaiah about Jesus, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned.”

Jesus is light, truth, and the new way. 

In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus repeats, “You have heard it said…” and “but I tell you a new way.”  In light of these verses, I think Jesus in Matthew 4:17 might be saying repent as in, “Check it out! Wrap your mind around this! Get on board!”

The sentence could be rephrased, “The kingdom of heaven is coming, so turn around and get your head back in the game!” (BCET – Basketball Coach English Translation)

Or “Pay attention and try to follow along, it’s about get real.” (MSV – Movie Script Version) 

Perhaps the best example of repentance, as I understand it, can be found in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” It is a transformation in thinking that leads to a change in action.

Patterns of Repentance

Going back to the story of Jonah above, we see a pattern of repentance. Jonah decided to go one way, God convinced him to get back on the path he was called to – to change his mind and direction. The men on the boat believed in many gods, but came to believe in and commit to Jonah’s God because of their experience in the boat – they took action – tossing Jonah, giving sacrifices, and making vows.  Nineveh went from a hell-bent city steeped in sin and pride to a city humbled and dependent on the mercy of God. These all underwent changes of moral convictions and beliefs that led to a change of direction. They were transformed in their understanding which led to a change in heart and behavior. They repented.

If you believe, as I once did, that repentance is about feeling remorse, regret, and shame – that it is about focusing on your sin and your failure, then please join me in repenting of your understanding of repentance!  

Repentance is not about your feelings and failuresit’s not so much about you. It’s about God, who loves you the most, calling you to follow him. 

Let go of your old way of thinking and believe that repentance means being convinced of a new way. It’s a little “meta” isn’t it? God is challenging you to taste and see that He is good (Psalm 34:8). He wants you to trust in His truth and ways and not on your old ways of thinking (Proverbs 3:5).  This is why we find repentance so often paired with faith.

Repentance is an invitation to transformation – from going your own way to going God’s way.

By this definition, I find myself in a regular pattern of repentance. Through Bible study, community, and prayer God continues to transform my perspective, to change my mind, and to convince me of better ways to live. 

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What is repentance?

What do we repent from?

  • I used to believe God was constantly frustrated and angry at me – waiting to pounce at my every mistake. I was anxious, sad, and angry. Now I know that God is for me, merciful, and waiting to embrace me at my every mistake. Now I have more confidence and hope.
  • I once fell for a prosperity gospel pitch, writing a check down to the penny for all that was in my bank account. (I was still in college, so it wasn’t all that much.) My mind was changed about the prosperity gospel & I determined it is false. Now I pray about what I give, not under compulsion or for “payback.”
  • When my first born, my poor burnt pancake, was very young I fell for another false teacher who said that unless a child cries, they are not truly repentant, and their souls are in danger. So when she got in trouble, if she didn’t cry, even if she apologized, I would scold and shame her until she cried, because I thought that was needful. Fortunately God transformed my thinking and I believed that she could learn and change her behavior without shame and tears. I stopped trying to make her cry and became a more godly parent.

Although I know I was deceived and have repented, I still feel awful about it. That’s just one example of how a false understanding of repentance can be harmful.  

More Examples

If it helps you to understand the word itself better, most of us experience repentance even apart from issues concerning faith. I’ve changed my mind and actions on countless issues.

  • I’ve changed my mind and actions when it comes to diet many times. I once followed low-fat, now I follow low-carb – and followed about 20 other diets between.
  • I’ve changed my mind on how I shop. I used to aim for the cheapest deal, now I realize some of those cheap shirts fall apart within months, sometimes weeks and are not the deal I though they were. So I changed the way I think about a what’s a good buy and how I shop.
  • I used store up all kinds of things I was no longer using or had too many of “just in case.” I thought I was saving money down the road or somehow making my future more secure. But I came to see that have too much stuff, trying to navigate it, organize it, move it was a huge hassle. It was sucking up my time and making my place messy. What I thought was for gain, was beneficial, I changed my mind about. I came to believe extra stuff was a drag, baggage, a negative on my life. So I changed my behavior and started giving things away.

Hopefully, you see the pattern here. The call to repentance is not about bringing shame, but about bringing a different perspective, a reformed way of thinking, and a call to turn and go another way. 

The call to repentance is not about bringing shame, but about bringing a different perspective, a reformed way of thinking, and a call to turn and go another way.  #GentleChristianParenting #repent Click To Tweet

What are your thoughts on repentance and what it means to repent?
Does this challenge any of your beliefs about what repentance is?

Christina Dronen

Christian mom who practices gentle parenting. Author of the Parenting In Christ Bible study discussion guides.

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