What Repentance Means

Cynthia Bourgeault’s wonderful book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message is an absolute delight. She is definitely onto something, even when I find myself disagreeing with her. The book is full of gems, big and little alike.

One that struck me was her understanding of the word “repentance.” She writes,

The Greek that it’s translating is metanoia. And guess what? It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself for doing bad things. It doesn’t even mean to “change the direction in which you’re looking for happiness,” although it is often translated that way. The word literally breaks down into meta and noia, which, depending on how you translate meta (it can be either the preposition “beyond” or the adjective “large”), means “go beyond the mind,” or “go into the larger mind.” The repentance that Jesus really is talking about means to go beyond your little egoic operating system that says, “I think, therefore I am,” and try out the other one–the big one–that says, “I am, therefore I think.” (p. 37).

This is captivating stuff. Growing up, I was taught that repentance meant feeling sorry for sin. When I got older and started reading theology I was told that repentance actually meant to “change direction,” or to “turn around.” But Bourgeault is right, the word actually does not mean either of those things. It means to transcend our selfish, egoist narrative and see the bigger picture. It means “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” in just the mystical sense of transcending the self and seeing a bigger world, the bigger narrative of God.

When I view my actions from my egoist self, I can (and do) justify it all. They deserved it, or I was justified in taking the action or saying the thing that I said, or they had it coming. Our egoist mind conjures up justifications like the federal government prints money. There’s never a shortage. To enter into the larger mind, then, is to see ourselves from outside ourselves, to transcend our own perspective, and to move into a state of consciousness alive to the kenosis of God, the self-giving, non-dualistic means by which we experience God and his presence.

So the next time we read “Repent, and believe,” let’s try to remember that Jesus is actually saying, “Transcend the ego and love.”

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