In my line of work, I get all kinds of questions from all kinds of people. People want guidance: “can youhelp me make this decision?” People want answers: “why would God do that?” People want comfort: “what can I do to get through this?”
But there’s another line of questioning that’s become quite common recently and it might surprise you. People want ASSURANCE – they want to know that what they’re doing is the right thing and that they’ve done it correctly. This applies to us more today than ever before – especially to all of my fellow perfectionists and "results-oriented" friends out there.
If that's you, beware: the spiritual life poses a significant challenge to you.
Why? Because there’s no grading system. There’s no report card that says “you got it right.” There’s no concrete objective measure of how we’re doing. It’s all intangible and abstract. We hate that! We like to work on a project and then be told “Good job. You got it right. Now you can move on to the next subject.”
But unfortunately, the spiritual life doesn’t work that way, does it? So what are we to do then? Just keep on guessing?
I've written plenty on the subject of repentance and its importance. I've often said that “repentance is the key that unlocks the door to God’s gifts.” But I’ll bet that many of you read that and thought to yourself: HOW DO I KNOW IF I'VE REPENTED OR NOT?
If I pray and say sorry to God, does that mean I’ve repented?
If I promise to never do it again, does that mean I’ve repented?
If I confess to a priest, is that enough to show that I’ve repented?
Do I have to weep and cry in order for the repentance to count?
You may agree with me about the importance of repentance, but how do you know if what you're doing matches what God says repentance ought to look like?
In other words, how do I know if I am doing it (repentance) right?
If I had to come up with a one word definition for repentance, I’d say CHANGE. Repentance means to make a change. You can’t say you’ve repented unless something has changed. And specifically, I believe there are two types of change that are needed for a real repentance - one we talk about a lot and one that doesn't get as much attention.
The kind of change we know we need is a change of BEHAVIOR. But the other kind of change - the one that comes BEFORE that - is a change of MIND.
Repentance comes from the Greek word ‘metanoia’ which literally means “to think differently after” or “to change one’s thinking.” Repentance must start in the mind because that’s where sin starts. Sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions.
“But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” James 1:14-15
Imagine two people who each fell into the same sin – let’s say each committed adultery and cheated on their wives. Each of them comes to repent but their attitudes aren’t quite the same.
The first guy says “I know I really messed up. I can’t believe what I did. This is so bad. I gotta be stronger next time. If my wife finds out, she’ll kill me.”
The second guy says, “I really messed up. I’ve been letting lust into my heart and my mind for a long time and now I am seeing the results of that. This sin is killing me and destroying my life. I hate this sin.”
Do you see the difference? Which of the two had a ‘metanoia'? A change of thinking?
The first guy was definitely remorseful – but if you notice, his remorse was mainly caused by the consequences of his sin – “my wife will kill me” and “I gotta be stronger next time.” Yes he feels bad that he did it, but he didn’t really change his thinking about the root problem – his lust. He thinks that he just needs to be stronger and have more will power.
In contrast, the second guy’s focus was the root issue. He realized that he has a deep problem that needs to be addressed. This is someone who is likely to make a real change in life. Why? Because he’s changed his way of thinking. He realizes that his lust will destroy him unless he takes action.
That doesn’t mean that he’ll never sin again. But it does mean that he won't look at sin the same way anymore. He has changed his attitude/mindset towards sin and now realizes its deadly effect on his life.
How about you? Does your repentance look more like the first guy or the second guy? Are you remorseful for the consequences? Or do you realize the deadliness of sin?
I love the attitude that Joseph had in Genesis 39 when his boss’ wife was trying to seduce him to sleep with her?
“How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)
Now that’s a guy who's repented!
For reflection: when was the last time you had a real “metanoia”? A real "change of mind"?