Repentance is one of the main themes of this season, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (September 29-30 this year). It’s more than a holiday theme, though; it’s an essential spiritual practice, and here’s a step-by-step guide.
Messiah Yeshua taught, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns to God from his sins than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent” (Luke 15:7, CJB).
Repentance isn’t a popular idea in today’s culture, but apparently it’s still popular in heaven, and it remains an essential key to spiritual and emotional wholeness.
Repentance is termed teshuvah in Jewish writings, based on the root word shuv, meaning “turn” or “return”.
Teshuvah/return works better than “repentance” because it’s more concrete and harder to dismiss as just a religious notion. Teshuvah implies reaching a turning point, turning away from denial, from blaming others, and from making excuses. It means turning around to take full responsibility for the mess we’ve made of our lives and for what we need to do to clean it up.
In Moses’ final message to the Israelites before his death, he employs the root shuv, or “return,” seven times:
And it shall come to pass when all these things come upon you . . . and you shall return your heart . . . and return to the Lord and heed his voice . . . that the Lord will return your captivity . . . and return and gather you from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. . . . And you shall return and heed the voice of the Lord . . . and the Lord will return to rejoicing over you . . . if you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deut. 30:1-10, literal translation)
In this passage, the verb shuv has two subjects; Israel returns to the Lord, of course, but the Lord also returns to Israel. Repentance, like so much in spiritual life, involves a divine-human partnership: “‘Return to me and I will return to you’, says the Lord of Hosts” (Mal. 3:7).
Teshuvah is about restored relationship. We might think of it as going down our check-list of transgressions, apologizing for each one that we’ve done, and making a real effort not to do them again, but that’s not the heart of it. Self-examination and confession are essential to repentance, but as one modern authority puts it,
The whole essence of the precept of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return again. Longing develops only when one has lost something precious. Sin pushes us far away and stimulates our longing to return. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik)
This longing to return takes responsibility for specific sins and misdeeds, but what really drives it is a sense of distance from God. The goal: “You will return to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10).
So how do we return to God?
Scripture reveals distinct phases or components of teshuvah that we can put into practice in our lives today. We can summarize these phases as recognition of sin, remorse, restitution, and resolve.
Recognition is described in the first of the seven “returns” in Deuteronomy: “and you shall return your heart,” or more literally, “you shall return to your heart,” meaning “come to your senses,” or “take to heart” what has happened to you. Without this inner awakening, there can be no true return. We can’t produce this awareness on demand, but we can slow down, take the time to examine our deeds and attitudes, and be open to what we might discover about ourselves.
Remorse results from hearing the wakeup call of recognition. We moderns often see remorse or regret itself as the real problem, rather than as an indicator that something else is wrong in our lives. So, instead of denying these feelings, we need to let them drive us to genuine moral change, which also requires . . .
Restitution: doing all we can to reverse the effect of our sin, as it says, “You shall return to the Lord and heed his voice.” In other words, you will start obeying God’s word. Restitution can include confession of wrongdoing, apologizing, paying back a debt, returning to the one(s) that we have offended and offering to do whatever it takes to make things right. All of these are steps of obedience and restitution.
Resolve, or resolution to turn away from sin and back to God and his ways, is the fourth stage of teshuvah. Resolve means changing the direction, the momentum of our lives, away from self and back to God and his ways—and doing this “with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10).
We can see these four stages of repentance—recognition, regret, restitution, and resolve—in a story that Messiah Yeshua once told about a man and his two sons (Luke 15:11–32).
One day the younger son said to his father, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 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 we see the first phase of repentance, recognition. The son came to himself. He woke up and realized that he was standing among the pigs . . . and longing for their food! 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 remorse for his ways 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.
The most remarkable element in Yeshua’s story, however, is the response of the father. It reveals a fifth stage in repentance, which is 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.
In this story, the father brings to life the words of the prophet Malachi, “‘Return to me and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of Hosts.” The steps of repentance are up to us—recognition, remorse, restitution and resolve—but as we take them, God is at work to restore us to himself. He is ready to return to us, to bring us back into a genuine relationship with himself. Like the father in Yeshua’s story, God is awaiting our return, and he rejoices over the one who was lost and turns back to be found.