Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.


* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.

 

A Patron Saint for Doubters

Note to the reader: As a pastor, I often talk with people who harbor serious doubts and questions about the Christian faith. Some are unbelievers; others are Christians. This and the next three postings express how I respond.

Bible text: Matthew 11:2-6

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Image

A 12th century icon of the deësis from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

The deësis was a popular medieval devotional image. It shows the risen Jesus as lord of the cosmos sitting on a jeweled throne. His left hand holds a gospel book. His right rises in blessing.

At his side stand the two highest saints in the Christian hierarchy. On the right, the Virgin Mary; on the left, John the Baptist. They pray for sinners. They model sanctity for the rest of us. John, in fact, personifies professing faith by acknowledging Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Yet John also personifies the shadow side of believing: the troubling persistence of doubt in the life of faith.

A fiery preacher of repentance, John angers King Herod Antipas, who silences John by imprisoning him. (Herod will also ultimately behead him.) While in prison, John hears reports about the ministry of Jesus. They are not what he expects to hear. Jesus is not acting like the Messiah that John and other Jews are expecting.

John begins to entertain doubts about Jesus. So he sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now here’s an interesting saint. Christian tradition recognizes John as one of its greatest. Yet he is a saint assaulted by doubt. How can that be? We do not expect a saint to be troubled by doubt.

In the version of Christianity that I grew up in, it was a given that if one had doubts about Christianity, then that was a clear sign that either one had not been truly born again or that one had backslidden into sin. Spiritual Christians do not doubt.

Or do they?

If you look at both the Bible and the lives of exceptional Christians through the ages, the answer is yes. Yes, believers do doubt. John the Baptist is one example. Another comes at the very end of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew concludes his gospel (Chapter 28) with that mountaintop scene where Jesus hands the eleven disciples their mission after his ascension. They are to go into the world and make disciples, baptizing and teaching. Christians have called this the Great Commission. It has fired Christian evangelism.

It’s a solemn scene, so solemn that Matthew says the disciples worshipped Jesus. But then he adds, strangely, “Some doubted.” I’ve always found that peculiar. Here the disciples are in the presence of the risen Jesus. How could any experience be more spiritual? Yet, Matthew says, some doubted. He does not say why. We can only guess.

Doubt also plays an important role in the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden story. God has commanded the primeval couple not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they die.

They obey until the serpent plants doubt into Eve’s mind. If you eat of the tree, the serpent suggests, “you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [Genesis 3:4-5] This casts doubt on the goodness of God’s motives.

Doubt stalks the life of faith constantly. I don’t think its presence in our minds and emotions says much definitively about the status of our spiritual life. For it is a pervasive experience in most Christians’ lives, even in the lives of people we consider great saints.

If I were to ask a person on the street to name a great saint of the 20th century, I would not be surprised if many would name Mother Teresa. She was an amazing woman of great piety and Christian service, as she worked among some of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. She modeled Jesus in that service.

In 2007, after her death, a book of her letters [Mother Teresa: Come, Be My Light] was published. What startled the world was how they revealed that Mother Teresa had experienced decades of spiritual depression, loneliness, and doubt.

In September 1946, she had heard a voice—a voice she believed the voice of Jesus—calling her to serve the poor. She obeyed. But her obedience did not lead her into a life of spiritual serenity.

Quite the opposite. Instead she experienced a strong sense of abandonment. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote, “—and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great nothing touches my soul.”

This is not what we expect to hear from such a great servant of Jesus. But it is a truthful experience for many saints as much as it is for us who claim no great sanctity. We even hear it on the lips of Jesus. On the cross he cries out before he dies, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Experiences of doubt are a common part of the Christian religious experience. And we should not be alarmed when they occur to us as they did to John the Baptist. He knows the force of doubt, and surely he must now be able to feel compassion for those who are also assaulted. For this very reason, I would like to propose that John the Baptist be regarded as the patron saint of doubters.