The Three Stages of Repentance
Repentance is the central theme of Christianity. It is the teaching of St John the Forerunner in preparation for the coming of the Lord and it is also the starting point of our Lord’s teaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:2, Matt 4:17).
Repentance, therefore, is in truth the beginning of the life in Christ.
What is Repentance and how are we to achieve it? We may be assisted to understand and to undertake Repentance by breaking it down into three stages:
Contrition, the feeling of remorse and sorrow for our actions, is a first step in the healing of our souls, especially when accompanied by tears. Contrition is the opening of our wounds and the clearing away so that the antiseptic can be applied. To do otherwise is to risk that the wound will fester and spread causing us great damage.
However, although a good start, contrition is not enough. Judas, after betraying our Lord, felt deep sorrow for his actions. So sorrowful was he that he returned the blood money and went out and hanged himself. His sorrow stopped there and did not flower into Repentance. Peter also fell and felt sorrow, but he did not stop there. He returned to Christ.
- Decision to return
This is the core element of Repentance, the decision to turn around. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, this is described by the expression, “He came to himself” (Lk 15:17): that is, he came to his senses and realised how far he had fallen. He remembers the beauty of his father’s house. He does not excuse himself. He does not blame his father or someone else for his predicament. He accepts that he is the author of his own downfall.
There is no doubt that it takes real courage to repent, much more courage than it took for us to sin. St John Chrysostom says: “Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance”.
- Actions – the fruits of Repentance
The decision to change, to abandon our former way of life, is not merely a mental exercise but must have material consequences if it is to be real. There must be a struggle to avoid falling again. In the parable of the prodigal son, this is exemplified by the journey from that foreign land back towards his father’s house.
Repentance for us Orthodox is not a once off event but rather a way of being. Since we are sinners, and we will continue to be sinners until the end of our earthly lives, we are called to live in a state of Repentance. The Church prays in this way when we hear our Priest calling on God with these words “That the remainder of our lives may be spent in peace and repentance we ask of the Lord”, and we as the people of God respond: “Grant this our Lord”.
May God grant us to live in a state of Repentance during this blessed Lent and throughout the remaining days of our lives.
Source: Lychnos February/March 2018