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.

 

The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.