The overriding meaning of this English noun is negative: it implies either regret or contrition for vices in the past (e.g., sin, fraud, transgressions) or failures to do virtuous things.
Its verb form to repent comes from the Latin root penitire (‘to regret or feel sorry’). This verb is invariably associated with another Latin word penalis (‘penalty, punishment’) and it entails compensation.
Accordingly, a victim can call on law enforcement officers and ask for adequate compensation. The law court will weigh the nature and gravity of the wrongdoing and decides its compensation.
These Latin meanings entered Christian vocabulary when Jerome (c. 350 – 420 CE) chose penitire as the equivalent to the Greek term metanōia.
Consequently, repentance has negative and otherworldly connotations. Leaders of mainline Christian communities such as Roman Catholicism have devised elaborate rituals that range from penitential confessions to a priest to undertaking pilgrimages.
Dravidian languages too have similar negative notions about repentance. For example, the Tamil noun maṉastāpam means grief, contrition, remorse, distress, anguish, and sympathy and pity.
It contains the Buddhist meaning of the term tāpam (passionate, fiery ‘yearning’ or unquenchable ‘thirst’ such as taṇhā), which produces and perpetuates suffering (dukka).
Cessation of this thirst will end suffering. This outlook characterized religion as otherworldly and life-negating.
This was probably an important reason for the disappearance of Buddhism in the land of its birth and growth. This might be also a reason why Christianity, even after its 2,000-years of continuous presence in India, has not captivated the psyche of Indians.
On the other hand, biblical references to repentance have negative and positive meanings.
The Hebrew verb nāham (108 times, ‘to comfort, console, to have compassion’, Genesis 24:67; 37:35) can also mean to becoming weary and regretful.
For example, an anthropological conception of YHWH-God in Genesis 6:6–7 shows, on the one hand, God’s weariness, and regret (nāham) in repeatedly showing compassion to a grievously disobedient group of people, and, on the other, God’s determination to eliminate that group by flood.
YHWH regretted for having created humans. The Hebrew verb nāham also means relenting and changing mind.
For example, the YHWH-God heard Moses’ prayer and relented (nāham) from the disaster (Exodus 32:12–14). God’s change of mind meant life for people.
Jeremiah 31:19 uses not only nāham (to ‘repent, relent’), but also shuv (1,145 times, ‘to turn away, to return’). But the notion of repentance in returning is not the dominant theme of this verb.
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The positive meanings of repentance are already known, but they are not sufficiently emphasized and practiced.
For example, Mark records Jesus’s call for repentance as his opening words: God’s time (chairos, not chronological time) has come; God’s Kingdom is now near.
Therefore, repent and believe in the Gospel (Mark 1:15, also 6:12–13; cf. Matthew 4:17). The Greek verb for repent is metanoeō.
It does not mean to regret and to feel sorry over one’s past sins and mistakes. Its main component noeō comes from the noun nóos (‘mind’), and refers to the manner of seeing, perceiving, and thinking about things.
Therefore, metanoeó means to think about higher things, to notice the world from higher perspectives.
This word contains the elements of turning, not in the sense of giving up or denying the past, but in the sense of re-orienting all what we are and what we have towards the Lord Jesus Christ and subjecting them to his lordship.
As a result, repentance does not refer to denial of one’s pre-conversion social or cultural identity; instead, metanoeó invites people to perceive and interpret God and human beings from the perspectives of the Lord Jesus Christ and to think about higher things.
Metanoia (Matthew 3:8, 11; Luke 3:3, 8, etc.) as repentance is about training our thoughts on higher things and disciplining our attitudes and behaviors to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.
In this process, we choose our priorities and actions that will help us to become more like Jesus (Romans 8:29) in thoughts, words, and deeds.
Apostle Paul advised his readers to cultivate the habit of thinking “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” and that which “is excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8).
The 596th couplet of Thirukkural encourages us to think about higher things, even if they are difficult to attain.
Hence, repentance is not merely about regret and feeling sorry only (maṉastāpam); it is more about maṉam tirumputal, i.e., reorienting our mind, thoughts, and habits towards the Lord Jesus Christ and to perceive the people and the world around us from Christ’s perspectives. It is a way of life!