If you have read some of my earlier posts, you can probably tell how much I enjoy Jewish theology and how important I think it is for Christians today. One of the most important lessons can be knowing how the Jewish understanding of some words (and the understanding of people in biblical times) is different from our own. Usually a better understanding of the words and thoughts used back then changes our insight as we read the Bible today. Last month I wrote about Scripture containing “Listen! or Hear!” Another important and commonly used Jewish word which does not translate into English well is the word “repent.” When I hear someone say “repent” the image that comes into my head is a wacko with a sandwich board screaming about the end being near. You have all probably heard it used to describe “turning from” or “changing your mind” about sin. Those definitions are not wrong, but they are not fully complete. To Jewish scholars, repent is less of a “turn from” and more of a “return to.” But if it is a return, we must have been there before right?
Where or what we are returning to comes back to Shalom, or harmony, with God. It is about having a relationship with God where we are totally in sync with His will. Think about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what made it paradise? Was it the nice trees and waterfalls? Not really, we still have that today. It was the connection they were able to have with God. Their relationship with Him was perfect because sin didn’t get in the way. They were not even aware of the concepts of “good and evil.” Repenting is not simply about running away from sin, it is about moving closer to God. Where the Jewish and Christian understanding differ however, is when it comes to atonement. In the Old Testament, repenting and returning to God was a process of ceremonies which people did to get closer to God. Jesus changed things right from the start of the New Testament when he said “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) No matter how much we seek to stay away from sinning by following the law, we cannot move into harmonious relationship without God. Repentance is still a return, but it is based on faith.
That all sounds beautiful and fluffy, but what does it mean for us in practical terms today? It means we have to know God is drawing us towards harmony with Him, and we should be seeking the same. Harmony doesn’t mean that we get everything we want from God; it means that what we want changes to wanting what God wants – which is not always what we think. This is where we see the understanding of repent as “changing our minds” – in seeking His wants and desires, our minds change about what it is we want. One of the more popular Jewish examples of repentance is that of a man who cheats on his wife; if he truly repents and his mind is changed, he can be in the same situation with her again and not even lust after her – because he is in harmony with the desires of God and wants other things for her. Even to the Jews so focused on the Law, changing their mind resulted in changed actions.
Sometimes seeking harmony with what God wants means changing our mind about what we think He wants. Christianity Today recently posted excerpts from an interview with Bono of U2 and he speaks about his experience with this: “We have a pastor who said to us, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing, Bono.’ … He said, ‘Find out what God is doing, ’cause it’s already blessed.’ … When you align yourself with God’s purpose as described in the Scriptures, something special happens to your life.” My prayer this week is that we can align our lives to joining God in what He is doing, to want what He wants, and to return to a harmonious relationship with Him.