The concept of repentance includes not only change but remorse. It is, in fact, change driven by remorse. Not all remorse leads to change. There is a remorse that sees the injury done or the fault committed as irremediable. Such remorse leads only to despair. But godly remorse leads to change. The first change that must take place is a change in thinking. The call to repent, therefore, is primarily a call to change your mind. It involves seeing things differently and responding to the new reality.
John, Jesus, and his disciples followed the exhortation to repent with a reason. “For,” they proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s time for a change because God’s kingdom is right at your elbow. Kingdom is another of those religious words that has lost much of its meaning. God’s kingdom is where his will holds sway, where he is respected and esteemed according to his magnificent worth and his will is promptly and gladly obeyed. To say that his kingdom is at hand implies that God will no longer tolerate rebellion in the hearts of people. He is calling all people everywhere to change the way they have been thinking about themselves and their lives in the world, to turn away from their rebellion and surrender to his rule in their hearts and lives. Lest the prospect of giving up one’s independence seem too great a price, he promises indescribable joy to those who do it. So the message holds both the threat of judgment and the enticement of eternal delight.
Repentance is neither easy nor pleasurable. Moreover, it is not something you can just do like taking a walk or brushing your teeth. Repentance begins with a sense that maybe, just maybe, the cause of your unhappiness, the source of the emptiness you feel lies within you. You begin to suspect that it is not that the world is out of whack; you yourself are out of whack. What’s more, you have not been merely mistaken, like a child who gets its sums wrong. No you have been willfully, culpably rebellious and self-centered. You have not known God or honored him. In fact, you have turned away from every intimation that you might know him, and done everything you could to make yourself look good even though you know you don’t deserve it. You begin to lose the esteem you’ve so carefully nurtured for yourself. You start seeing yourself as a coward, a bully, a hater, a betrayer of those who have trusted you, an arrogant and selfish pig. Instead of flinching from these revelations, you feel a deep sorrow and regret for your behavior, and you resolve to know just how deep your own depravity goes. You examine yourself and find yourself shot through with wickedness on every level. It seems that you have never desired anything that was good or beautiful for its own sake but only for the use you might make of it. You may cry. You may grieve over yourself as if you had died, though, in fact, you discover you have never been alive.
Then comes a moment of clarity, and your understanding of everything changes. You recognize that Jesus has a right to demand everything of you and give you nothing in return. Instead, he demands everything and offers you a life that death itself cannot overcome. With fear and trembling you return to him, hoping against hope that he will accept you. While you are still on your way, he meets you and sweeps you up in an embrace that crushes all doubt out of you. Suddenly, you find yourself enraptured by his love. You read the Bible like letters from a lover at war. You realize that there is nothing he can ask of you that you won’t do or attempt.
This is what Christians mean by repentance. To the hellbent world it is foolishness because they have to lay down their weapons and surrender. To religious hypocrites it seems unnecessary because they have always done what was right in their own eyes. But to those who repent, it is like being born again: trauma and pain followed by a new world of unimaginable splendor.