Stop and think

It is one of the most basic commands in the Gospel: Repent. Metanoeite in Greek. It is the first command of Christ (cf. Mk 1:15) and likewise of His vicar (cf. Acts 2:38). So fundamental is this command to Christianity that the word metanoia has become somewhat familiar. And yet for all its importance and familiarity, there has been no shortage of controversy over its meaning. Most still render it - accurately - as "repent." But since as far back as Tertullian in the third century, others have contended that the word actually gets at something much deeper, more profound: an interior conversion, a complete change of mind and heart.

Thus, one translation focuses on external behavior and the other on interior renewal. So, which is it? Not only does this seem to be one of those happy (and rare) occasions when both are right, but it is also an opportunity to see the relation of the two. That is, how action and thought are connected; how change of behavior and change of mind must go together.

First, "repent." This conveys a basic Gospel requirement: that we stop doing what we ought not and begin doing what we ought. Of course, this may seem superficial or legalistic. On its own it becomes a moral scolding: "Stop it." And the Gospel requires much more of us than mere external reform. But neither should we think it unimportant to cease and desist.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once observed, "If you do not behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave." We know that bad thoughts lead to bad actions. But his line brings out how actions influence thoughts. Most intellectual problems, in fact, proceed from moral problems. We typically do not think up a bad philosophy that leads us to bad behavior. It is, rather, the reverse. We do what we feel like and then construct a way of thinking to justify our bad behavior. As such, the reason many of us refuse to change our hearts is that we do not want to change our behavior. It has grown too pleasurable, comfortable or at least familiar.

By analogy, there may be hundreds of reasons that a man becomes an alcoholic. Please God, some day he will address them in recovery. But before he gets to that point, one thing is for certain: He must stop drinking. As long as that behavior continues, he cannot see the underlying problems. So also we need to change our prideful way of thinking. But before we can get to that point, we must do one simple (not easy) thing: Stop sinning. Repent.

If we end there, then we reduce the Gospel to mere moralizing. We must go further, to the deeper meaning of metanoeite: the call for a change of heart and mind, indeed, an entire rethinking of reality. Without this, external repentance neither counts for much nor lasts very long. Sin aggravates in us a warped view of reality. It prompts us to see all things through the prism of our pride, with us at the center and God at the margins. Everything is distorted, misshaped and out of proportion.

Metanoeite is the command to change our thinking entirely. This primordial Gospel imperative requires us to set aside our vain, covetous, rapacious view of reality and to put on the mind of Christ (cf. Rom 12:2; Phil 2:5). We are to leave behind not only sinful behavior but also the corrosive thoughts it has produced. Most of all, it means to conform our thinking to God's: to see all creation, every person, all our relationships and our very selves as they are, not as we would have them be. Repentance means seeing things from His perspective - the only true one.

Coming as it does on the first Sunday of Lent, the command sets the tone for the season. Lent is a time of correcting our vision. Our acts of repentance should not remain external actions that fall away once Easter comes. They should, rather, produce an interior renewal of mind that brings about a greater likeness to Christ at His Resurrection.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015