So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning. It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire. Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God. The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be. We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not. It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit. It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.
There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are. That prayer begins:
Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.
It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy. We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them. We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune. We lay all that aside and admit we do sin. And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God. The prayer then goes on:
O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.
It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51. We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation. It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.
In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth. The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven. We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God. God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation. God became human so that we humans might become god. God’s plan is and always was to abide in us. God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine. Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us. We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.
And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics. It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors. No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us. The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21).
We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness. We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”
Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded. It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants. Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us. It is the way that Christ describes to us: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance. It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming. It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is. The Deuteronomist continues:
“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”
However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people. Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity. We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven. Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us. God created us to be heaven.
Repentance is thus nothing more than our being human:
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”
Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be. We realize God’s will. Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us. Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger. Repentance means we:
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)