In recent years I’ve often taught on Teshuvah, or Repentance, as a four-step process, which can be traced throughout Scripture. It’s clearly pictured in Messiah Yeshua’s story of the Prodigal Son, the iconic picture of teshuvah in the Gospels. This year I’m working through an excellent book, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, by Dr. Louis E. Newman, which outlines seven steps of repentance. (See my post Teshuvah Translated.) In this blog I’ll see how those steps fit in with the four steps I’ve outlined.
Rambam (or Maimonides, 1135-1204), identified four components of teshuvah: recognition of sin, regret, restitution, and resolve.
And how does one repent? A sinner should abandon his sinfulness, drive it from his thoughts and conclude in his heart that he will never do it again, as it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his way… (Isaiah 55:7). Additionally, he should regret the past as it says: “For after I repented, I regretted (Jeremiah 31:18)…. And let the sinner call to Him who knows all hidden things to witness that he will never return to sin that sin again. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2)
Recognition of sin: Teshuvah begins with a wake-up call, which Rambam compares to the wake-up call of the shofar at Rosh HaShanah:
Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thoughts, which are not good (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
Regret: The modern approach is to see feelings like regret and guilt as the real problem, and try to get rid of them, instead of letting them drive us to genuine moral change. Regret or remorse owns the guilt, owns the misdeeds, and leads to the next component.
Restitution: Restitution includes confession of our and wrongdoings, but goes beyond that to take genuine responsibility for the outcome of the sin. Restitution may also mean paying back a debt, returning to the one that we have offended and offering to do whatever it takes to make things right.
Resolve. Not a guarantee of perfect performance, but a new beginning, the first steps in the right direction, and a commitment to keep going in that direction.
And he must also confess with his lips and declare those things that he has concluded in his heart. If one confesses verbally but does not resolve in his heart to abandon his sinful ways, he is like one who immerses himself in the ritual bath while holding an impure creature. . . . (Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:3)
Resolve means a change of direction away from our own ways and back to God and his ways. “You shall return to Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10).
We can see these four stages of teshuvah—recognition, regret, restitution, and resolve—in the story of the Prodigal Son, which really should be called the story of the Forgiving Father (Luke 15:11-32).
After the younger son receives his portion of the father’s inheritance and blows it, he gets a job as a swineherd. “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself. . .”
Here’s the first phase of teshuvah, recognition. The son woke up and realized that he was standing among the pigs . . . and longing for their food! In the parlance of the 12-step movement, he hit bottom. And so, when he recognized his condition,
He said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father.
The son displays regret for his sin and is ready to make restitution by returning to his father, confessing his sins, and offering to live with him like a hired servant. Finally, he resolves to return, changing his whole life direction from a journey away from home to a journey back.
Here are the seven steps of teshuvah in Newman’s book (pages 78-82):
- The beginning of the process is “to acknowledge, both to ourselves and to others, that we actually did the thing that was hurtful.”
- Next comes “our internal response to the truth of what we did . . . feeling remorse or regret for the mistakes of the past.”
- Confession, and “external expression” of the “internal judgment” or remorse.
- “From confession we move on to apology.”
- Restitution: “The offender needs to undo the wrong done to the extent possible—repairing or replacing what we have broken, returning what we have stolen, regaining the trust we have violated.”
- Soul reckoning: This is Newman’s translation of the practice of cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.” Through this practice we seek to understand the inner source of our sin, the deficits of character that produced the deficient behavior.
- “The process of teshuvah culminates in a moral transformation that encompasses both inner reorientation and a change in outward behavior.”
The first five steps are nearly identical with the four that I sketched out above, which is no surprise, since we’re drawing on the same sources. Newman provides a helpful expansion by treating confession and apology as distinct steps. Confession is hard enough, but it can be a bit theoretical. To look the offended party in the eye and acknowledge that I wronged him or her, and take full responsibility—that’s another step entirely.
And I sure wouldn’t argue with Newman’s sixth and seventh steps. We don’t know whether the prodigal ever did cheshbon hanefesh after his return. Did he recognize the roots of greed, impatience, and disrespect that set him up for his fall in the first place? We can only hope so.
The final step of moral transformation, however, does seem to have a big place in the prodigal son story, but in a way different from Newman’s formulation. I’ve taught that the most remarkable element in Yeshua’s story is the response of the father (which is why I say it’s really the story of the Forgiving Father). It’s a fifth stage in teshuvah, which also happens to begin with R: Restoration. The son comes to his senses and returns to his father; the father has been ready to return to the son all along.
But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
The moral transformation that Dr. Newman alludes to is brightly pictured here: the ragged, swine-scented wanderer gets a gold ring, a fine robe, new sandals, and the place of honor at the family celebration. He’s forgiven in the way that ultimately only God can forgive. This is the distinctive element that Yeshua’s story adds to the Jewish picture of teshuvah, the true goal of teshuvah—restoration and moral transformation that can only come through divine forgiveness. We have to take the steps of teshuvah, and I hope that during this season of teshuvah we really will—but when the Father sees us a long way off, heading his way, he runs out to greet us and bring us all the way home.