Nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle observed, “Of all acts, is not, for a man, repentance the most divine?” The Greek word “metanoia,” often translated as “repentance” in the New Testament, suggests “a transformative change of heart” (merriam-webster.com). To me, this takes repentance out of a narrow context of simply feeling regret or guilt and implies making a fresh start from a better basis.
A few years back I learned a great lesson in repentance when, in an act of stubborn will, I damaged our brand-new car. Although my husband had been certain that the car wouldn’t fit in our garage, I was quite sure I could make it fit. So I waited until he went to work and tried it – eventually bashing in the back end of the car. I felt awful.
Willfulness, including impulsive action, was nothing new to me. I’d been trying for years to stop my tendency toward it. I felt so upset about this latest incident that I became ill with a high fever. I was truly ready and willing to be healed of this character fault once and for all. But how?
As a student of Christian Science, I was familiar with its basic tenets, which are laid out in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy. One of these tenets addresses sin head on and shows how spiritual understanding destroys both the wrongdoing and its effects. Its premise is that evil is unreal – that is, has no basis in God, who is wholly good and is All – and thus has no real power over God’s creation. It begins: “We acknowledge God’s forgiveness of sin in the destruction of sin and the spiritual understanding that casts out evil as unreal” (p. 497).
“Sin” means different things to different people. My study and practice of Christian Science has led me to understand sin as any action that suggests we are separate from the source of all good, from God. And I certainly was feeling separate from good as I lay in bed with a fever fretting over what I had done!
I had felt regret, guilt, and shame before, and while these feelings would eventually fade somewhat, nothing much about my willful behavior changed. This time, I prayed for a fuller repentance – for the spiritual transformation that would result in reformation. The tenet cited above doesn’t blindly exonerate sin and its effects. It concludes: “But the belief in sin is punished so long as the belief lasts.” Expunging sin involves self-examination – seeing ourselves through a spiritual lens, and on this basis challenging the belief in the morbid influence of evil in our lives. This allows us to think and live by a higher standard.
I thought about the Apostle Paul’s words, “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). I reasoned that it is through my relation to God as God’s child – the spiritual expression of His powerful and active goodness – that I can be good. God is All, so there is nothing to degenerate or attack God. Therefore each of us, as divinity’s reflection, is safe, uncorrupted, free from defect, capable of expressing God’s goodness. Mrs. Eddy describes good as “the primitive Principle of man” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 14). The real source of our goodness is God, the universal Principle of divine good. Through the power of Christ, the true idea of God, we can discover the goodness we are all capable of.
I prayed with these ideas for about two hours that night. Then I fell asleep. When I woke, the fever had broken and I was well. When my husband woke, he felt a big change, too – his anger had been replaced with calm. The car was easily repaired, and we made new parking arrangements. Best of all, I had a renewed sense of my ability – my divine right – to put a stop to the willful, impulsive behavior. And from that point on, those tendencies diminished noticeably.
God’s nature as good itself establishes goodness as natural. Understanding this can bring about a change of heart that washes one clean of sin and its often painful results. This spiritual repentance comes from identifying God as the source of all good and acknowledging that this goodness is the permanent, fundamental essence of us all – and helps us to bring out the very best in ourselves and others.