“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)
While for many Orthodox, repentance implies going to confession and enumerating one’s sins, the Prophet Joel (who the Orthodox Church commemorates today) gives us a much broader sense of what repentance implies. For Joel, repentance means returning to God when one has strayed away from the Lord. It is a re-orienting of one’s life and priorities, restoring God as Lord of one’s life. This goes beyond just admitting to certain sins or showing remorse for one’s errors. It is more akin to changing one’s perspective, a paradigm shift in one’s thinking and orientation.
Fr Alexander Schmemann comments:
For repentance is not in the formal enumeration of one’s shortcomings, mistakes, or even crimes. Repentance is born, first of all, of the experience of estrangement from God, from the joy of fellowship with him, from the original life that God created and with which he endowed us. It is comparatively easy to admit one’s minor mistakes and shortcomings. But how much more difficult it is to suddenly find out that I have destroyed, wasted, and betrayed my spiritual beauty—that I have drifted so far from my true home, from my true life, that something priceless has been damaged in the very fabric of my life. And yet this is precisely what repentance is, which necessarily includes a deep desire to return, to regain once more the home that was lost. (A Voice For Our Time: Radio Liberty Talks, Volume 2 , Kindle Loc 933-938)
Repentance is what the Prodigal Son experienced after turning his back on his father to pursue his own self-will and self-centered interests. He doesn’t enumerate his specific sins, rather, he reorients his life and immediately begins his return to his father. He isn’t even seeking to restore his filial relationship to his father which he himself had broken. However, he realizes that a relationship with his father, even one of servitude, is better than a life with no relationship to him. This is what true repentance means, a change in one’s heart, a change in the direction of one’s life, a re-orienting of one’s mind in which one recognizes the essential importance of God in all that one does. It is an orientation that is personal but also the correct orientation of the entire world.
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ (Luke 15:13-19)
Because repentance was understood to be not a mere listing of one’s sins, but a re-orienting of one’s life to God, some church fathers thought there were two ways a sinner could achieve this return to God. One was to approach God confessing one’s sins and seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness. The other was to approach God enumerating all the things for which one is thankful. In both cases the person orients their life toward God in humility – one giving full recognition to God as the giver of every good and perfect gift and the other recognizing God’s holiness and how one falls short of holiness and so needs the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. Both have the same end – the person’s life is fully oriented toward God, which is the goal of repentance.