Not many words in our society make people recoil like the word “repent,” especially those who are not Christians. It may conjure up images of “bullhorn man” on the corner yelling at people, Bible thumpers, and the occasional warning of the impending doom of the world.
It seems for most in Evangelical Christianity, to repent is the same as “asking Jesus into your heart,” which is the same as saying a certain prayer that hits a few specified highlights. Once one has done so, they are now “saved” and should try to get others to also say the “sinner’s prayer” so they can be “saved” too.
But is that what it means to repent? The Forerunner of Christ, John, preached repentance, and in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ’s first sermon was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
So it seems Christ tied repentance to the Kingdom; in fact, repentance is the key to the Kingdom. But He never led anyone through a “sinner’s prayer” and neither did the apostles, so there must be more to it.
THE ROOT OF REPENTANCE
The word “repent” comes from the Greek word metanoia, which essentially means to turn around, to do an about-face. In the life of the Orthodox Christian, this is not a one time event. I believe it was the rise of the revivalism movement in Protestantism that completely altered the meaning of the word.
I attended a recent discussion in my area in which the topic was “The Kingdom of God Reimagined”. The general consensus was that Christians have misquoted and misunderstood Jesus for so long that we just need to reimagine what we think the Kingdom of God should be. When it was my turn to share, I discussed repentance and how that ties into the Kingdom, using the following illustrations:
REPENTANCE AND THE KINGDOM
Jesus tells two brief parables that explain how repentance is required to enter into the Kingdom. They are in Matthew 13:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Both of these parables state the same message.
As Jesus said, and as people were saying at the discussion forum I attended, the Kingdom of God is within all of us. But what does that mean? It doesn’t seem that we find it by default, or else our discussion would have been unnecessary.
And what does it mean to sell everything? Are we to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor, or is there another meaning?
ENTERING THE KINGDOM WITHIN
According to several Church Fathers, selling all of our possessions is repentance. In doing so, we give up every worldly thing so that we can embrace the Kingdom: this mysterious treasure within us. However, this is not so much about the material things you own.
The possessions we need to sell include lust, pride, envy, dishonesty, selfishness, egotism, worldly cares, anger, despondency, greed, laziness, gluttony, etc. All of the things that lead us to spiritual death and unhappiness, these are the things with which we are given the joyful privilege of “selling.” Many of us are at a point where we honestly don’t want those things anyway.
As Blessed Theophylact teaches, we sell these things back to their proper owners, that is the demons, for they are the rightful owners of these vices. It is in this manner that we are able to reach the Kingdom within.
Unfortunately, these “possessions,” or as the Orthodox call them, “passions,” are deeply entrenched in all of us, especially as we grow older. Selling them is difficult and many of us won’t finish this life having reached a state of complete purity.
But, if we are on the journey, working with God through the modes of grace he has given us (prayer, the Church, the Eucharist, the scriptures and writings of the fathers, etc) then we will be bestowed with beautiful glimpses of this mysterious treasure within as we draw closer to it.
An exact guide on how to walk in the Kingdom is well beyond my capabilities, and so I direct you to your local parish priest, your nearest monastery, and/or the books noted below.
St Theophan the Recluse does an exceptional job in explaining the parables mentioned above in the book The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It. It is a highly recommended read for those who wish to embark on the journey toward finding the Kingdom of God within. There are many other books as well, a few of them include Wounded by Love (Elder Porphyrios), Spiritual Struggle (Elder Paisios), The Arena (St Ignatius), and many other books you can find here.