Repentance … you keep using that word, but what does it mean?

Published 6:43 pm Monday, January 25, 2021

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By Nathan Decker

God saw what they were doing — that they had ceased their evil behavior.

So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.

Jonah 3:10


In one of my favorite movies, “The Princess Bride,” one of the characters repeats this one word over and over again: INCONCEIVABLE! After the masked man follows them across the sea … Inconceivable! After the masked man climbs the Cliffs of Insanity … Inconceivable! After the masked man wrestles the giant, defeats the expert swordsman, and challenges the man to a battle of wits … Inconceivable! At one point in the movie, one character named Inigo says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We, the church, often use the word repentance or repent. We use it in our baptismal vows. We use it each time we prepare our hearts for communion. We use it each year at Ash Wednesday as we receive the ashes on our forehead. In apocalyptic movies there always seems to be a homeless guy holding a sign that says “Repent! The Time is at Hand!” We keep using that word, I do not think it means what we think it means.

We seem to think that repentance means to turn away from evil. Old-time Hell-fire preachers proclaimed clear moral lines. Gamblers, give up your betting. That lottery ticket is a ticket to eternal damnation. Alcoholics put down the bottle. That whiskey burn is nothing compared to the burning fires that await you. And don’t get ‘em started on sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. To repent meant admitting your sin, your brokenness, your need. To repent meant avoiding wrongdoing, turning away from evil, and changing directions.

Jonah understood this kind of repentance. After all, he had gone in the wrong direction — toward Tarshish when God had told him to go to Nineveh. Jonah had admitted to the sailors that he was the reason the storm raged around them threatening to sink their ship. Jonah had sat in the bowels of a fish smelling death and decay. Jonah, after three pride-filled days, had finally humbled himself to the Lord and admitted he had chosen the wrong path. To Jonah, repentance meant confession and turning around to the right direction.

Repentance, however, also means seeing a new vision. Cue the Disney musical, Jasmine singing with Aladdin on the magic carpet: “A whole new world … .” In the Greek, the word for repentance is . Metanoia is what Jesus calls us to when he says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here.” Metanoia doesn’t mean avoid or turn around. Metanoia means “change your perspective.” To repent is to look at the world through Jesus’ eyes. To repent is to see possibility where everyone sees disaster. To repent is to see a child of God where others see enemies. To repent is to see wonder, beauty and truth in everyone and everything. To repent is to allow God’s vision, Christ’s hope and the Spirit’s dreams to rule your life.

Jonah didn’t seem to understand this kind of repentance. Jonah was a hell-fire brimstone preacher. He offers no grace. In fact, once Jonah has done his job, he goes up on a hillside and waits for God to light the fuse on what he thinks will be a beautiful fireworks show of death, destruction and gore to a bunch of non-Jewish gentile outsiders.

Nineveh, however, believed in repentance in a way that Jonah didn’t understand. The king of Nineveh rips his clothing and puts ashes on his head (a sign of grief in the ancient world). He proclaims a fast. For the only time recorded in the Bible, neither humans nor animals eat or drink! He offers a contrite heart, a city filled with people ready to change, and he does so with the hope of changing God’s mind. Repentance means turning around. Repentance means changing our vision to God’s vision. Repentance means attempting to influence God. “Who knows?” the king states, “God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.”

Human repentance leads to divine repentance. Some folks seem to think that everything is already mapped out. They believe in a form of fatalism. God has already written everything that is going to happen … except that’s not what the Bible teaches us. God’s love limits God’s control on our actions. Because he loves us, he allows us to make mistakes. Because he loves us, he waits for us to come home. Because God loves us, God’s own plans are changed by our repentance.

God doesn’t destroy Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t get his fireworks show. Human repentance causes God to change his mind. Literally (because it is the same word in Hebrew) God repents of what he had planned.

Repentance. What does this word mean for us? The story of Jonah is one filled with outsiders and insiders, wrath and unexpected forgiveness. It is a story of repentance. Repentance leads us to hope through changing the way we see things to God’s vision. Repentance even impacts God. Our actions affect God’s outcomes. Repentance. We keep using that word … let’s understand what it means.


NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 757-562-3367.