by Gavin Matthews
Rugby League player and writer Dave Hadfield recounts a bizarre series of events during his team’s trip to play ‘Sevens’ in Italy in the 1980s. The end result was that he was transferred between clubs during the interval and played each half for a different team – wearing shirts of both Oulton Rangers and and Hemel Stags in the course of the match. How his erstwhile team-mates treated him on the pitch after his radical switch of loyalties, he does not record! When Wayne Rooney first went back to Everton to play against his former team – but now earning Manchester United-sized wages, it would be fair to describe the Goodison Park atmosphere, as at least er… ‘inhospitable’. Changes of loyalty, purpose and identity always provoke a reaction..
This observation isn’t just limited to the realm of sporting conflict either. People who change sides are routinely hailed as heroes by the new team-mates, while their treachery is denounced by those they have left behind. A politician in my region is still often reminded of her previous party-political affiliation – with some bitterness. The truth is that like Dave Hadfield, she changed identity, purpose and direction of play.
Essential to the Christian view of the spiritual life is just such a transition. The problem is that the word which was once routinely used to describe it, has fallen into disrepute. So poisonous has this word become that it is often suggested that we drop it altogether. I have some sympathy with the view that the word might be so toxic that its real meaning is obscured by its use, because people recoil from it without pausing to consider what it might actually mean. However, I am also wary of the fact that sometimes, refusing to use a word that Jesus himself was happy to deploy, might be something akin to being slightly embarrassed of my new team-colours – and that if Jesus used it, so should I! Jesus, of course, warned quite solemnly about people who are “ashamed of me and my words.”1
The dodgy word, is of course, “repent‘! This dirty word in Christian discourse, is no longer considered to be the standard stuff of the spiritual life; but the domain of swivel-eyed loons yelling at people in shopping centres; usually with Gandalf-length beards, and alarmist sandwich boards. The oft-appended ‘for the end of the world is nigh’ only goes to enhance the sense of disconnection from reality with which the word has become synonymous. The comic-actress Tamsin Greig performed a hilarious little impromptu routine on the Graham Norton show, in which she talked about her atheist neighbour who dog-sits for her. The story goes that she gives her new dog a mad-name which her neighbour will be required to yell in the park in order to call it back to heel. The name of the new dog? Of course, it was “Repent!”
Is it possible to rehabilitate this most awkward and embarrassing of words, and deploy it for good? Or is it irredeemably lost to us as a useful and helpful description of the transformation we experienced when we became Christians; let alone a credible way of commending this change to those who are yet to experience it? While the cultural and linguistic tide may have turned, in this article I am going to suggest, (perhaps Canute-like), that the word still has much to commend it, and that we are poorer without it.
One of the issues around the word is that it is routinely misunderstood. Monty Python fans will remember the chanting monks who march through The Holy Grail movie, beating themselves over the head with wooden planks. Indeed, during the Great Plagues in England in the Middle Ages, there were flaggellists who did just that. Believing that The Black Death was an outpouring of the wrath of God, they sought to punish themselves, in order to deflect this wrath from the populace. While this might have been well-intentioned, it betrays a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus and the other biblical authors meant when they called people to “repent”. But this is a parody; and a parody of a misunderstanding at that!
If repentance is to be rescued from swivel-eyed loons and flagellists, it is important to try and define what we do mean by it. Perhaps the best way to do that is not through complex semantics, but with reference to Rugby player Dave Hadfield, with who we began. When Dave joined his new team, there were certain things which changed. Firstly his rugby shirt was swapped – he publicly identified with his new team, and left something of his old one behind. There’s something ‘repentance’ like about that, but it isn’t quite the heart of the matter. Implicit with his transfer to his new club, was the understanding that he would completely change his direction of play. That, perhaps, begins to tease open the definition of repentance. There is nothing self-flaggellating about the transfer. After all, the Bible is insistent that entry to the Christian-faith is entirely founded upon the grace of God and doesn’t require either self-denigrating acts of flagellation, any more than it does self-enhancing acts of charity. In fact, the picture is that passion of Christ, has completed any necessary flaggellation for the whole of humanity; and that as a result, our entry into the Christian life is a free-transfer. Consequently, repentance is received as a gift; not performed as a meritorious task.
Nevertheless, this free-transfer has immediate and life-changing implications, which we should be fully aware of before we commit to it. That is, nothing less than a complete change in our goals, aims and direction of play. This essentially involves heart-felt changes in patterns of behaviour; using the objective criteria of The Bible as the standard. In the West today, these typically involve a change to the way we relate to the big-beasts of the human-psyche, (money, sex and power); how we regard stuff, ourselves and others. Clearly this is a long process of refinement we commit to, not an instant or magic re-wiring of the personality. Christians make no claim to being ‘good-people’, let alone approaching perfection, rather in contrast we would claim to be people who need the forgiveness of God for our faults. Indeed, many of us carry profound and deep regrets for sins committed in the past, and attitudes or desires with which we still wrestle. If our extended sporting-metaphor can be deployed again (without breaking!), we still make errors on the pitch, we sometimes score dreadful own-goals, and give away penalties to the opposition. However, pursuing those things is no longer part of our identity, our purpose, or intention; we are deeply committed to a new direction of play.
If the flaggelists have distorted repentance; we have equally been mislead by the assumption that repentance is essentially a great show of emotion. Now, repentance can be a very emotional thing indeed. It certainly was for me. Some folks reduce repentance to a purely intellectual move; when for many of us it was more of a life-defining change of trajectory, undertaken with great feeling. I was an older teenager, wrestling with sin, doubt, and questions of purpose. What stung me into repentance was the strange realisation that despite my rule-keeping adherence, and desire to please; at a heart level I was not at peace with God. My ‘religious activities’ hadn’t compensated for my sins, changed my sinful desires, produced peace in this life, or the promise of hope for the next. Rather my outward ‘christianity’ was more like a facade than a matter of life-deep substance. Repentance, in contrast, is the life-deep change of direction which springs from the deep work of God in the soul.
Properly understood then, repentance is both required and life-giving.
It is required, because Jesus demands it. In fact the very first words the New Testament records Jesus as preaching are ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near” 2. Attempts to remove the notion of repentance from Christianity have been common throughout history; and continue to plague the church today. Some have wrongly thought that repentance is an affront to the idea that God saves us by his grace, not our efforts. They have suggested that saying that repentance is necessary, is to put a form of human work in the place where only God’s grace must be. This is fraught with problems, because the Bible makes it abundantly clear that while we are saved entirely by God’s grace; when applied to us, that salvation changes us completely.
The problem of minimising repentance is tragically illustrated in one very high-profile Christian family. One of their members produced a book which sought to diminish the idea of repentance, creating a false-dichotomy between it and God’s grace. The fact that not long after publishing it, he was found to have been committing long-term adultery, is as startling as it is revealing. Now, while there can of course, be free forgiveness and grace for this man; a heartfelt-returning to God and His ways, must be part of both the path home, and the evidence that change has really taken place. Likewise, placing the subjective standards of our own feelings of what might be acceptable to God, with what the Bible reveals as His standards is a damaging dilution of Jesus’ message. The trendy word for this is ‘wiring’. The Bible, it is claimed, cannot contradict my ‘wiring’. The problem with this is that it reduces everything to the subjective; and if my ‘wiring’ is itself damaged, then I am measuring everything with a faulty gauge.
The kind of repentance that is a deep-level recalibration of life on a Godward course; a complete change in the direction of play, is essential.
Repentance though, when grasped fully; is life-giving. For me, the issue was that trying to manage my behaviour; without asking God to change my heart, and my soul, and giving me a new identity; was like the deliberately infuriating arcade game, whack-a-mole. As anyone who has ever attempted to play the game will know; wherever you are ready to strike with the mallet, the mole will inevitably pop-up somewhere else! Adding a facade of religious behaviour over my sinfulness neither brought me peace, nor controlled my behaviour very well. In fact whenever I tried to control sin in one area, it infuriatingly popped-up somewhere else. Something deeper was required, which allowed me to be honest about who I was, allowed me to have integrity, and brought me peace with God, and began the process of long-lasting change. Faith in Jesus Christ, was one side of the coin. The other was inviting him into my life, acknowledging his authority over it, and asking Him to begin changing me – from the inside out. This repentance meant heading back out onto the pitch, in new colours, and ready to begin to play for a different team. Repentance is then, the moment at which the love, grace, joy and transforming power of God flows into a person; and the business of making them more like Christ begins. As Chrislikeness is our aim, purpose and destiny, repentance is not some self-flaggelating ritual, nor an optional-extra; it is the departure-lounge for eternal life.
Don’t expect your former team-mates to welcome your change of loyalty though. It can be rough out on the pitch.