Repent: Behavior Modification, Changing Your Thinking, Or Both?

Repent: Behavior Modification, Changing Your Thinking, Or Both? July 8, 2021

What does it mean to repent?

If you ask most evangelical Christians, they’ll likely start talking about sin and behavior modification. Most of the time, they’ll apply repentance to “unbelievers” or even other Christians who don’t believe like they do. Rarely, if ever, do they seem to want to apply the term to their own lives, and if they do, it’s only when they talk about their conversion (if there was one) from non-Christian to Christian.

This is unfortunate because the word means much, much more than changing your behavior. It includes that, but is certainly not limited to it. It’s not a one time thing, nor is it something you do every time you “miss the mark.” It’s not synonymous with asking for forgiveness for your sins, nor is it another word for feeling guilty for something you’ve done.

What is it, then?

It’s about changing your mind. It’s about changing your thinking. It is, according to scholar Guy Nave, a term that was “used consistently in the literature of that time [the first century] to express a fundamental change in thinking that leads to a fundamental change in behavior and/or way of living.” So, in other words, to repent means to completely change the way you think about something which in turn leads you to change the way you live.

Now, ask yourself this: How often do we see evangelicalism changing their thinking? That’s not really something I see it doing . . . not when it comes to the LGBTQ community, not when it comes to the doctrine of hell, not when it comes to atonement, not even when it comes to their support of badly spray-tanned political leaders.

It’s funny because the only time I hear about repentance is 1), when they tell me I need to repent of my support for the LGBTQ community (of which I am one) and 2), when they tell me how Universalism isn’t compatible. Here’s the thing, though: Both my acceptance and celebration of the LGBTQ community, as well as my affirmation of Universal Reconciliation, are results of changing my thinking, which in turn has changed my behavior for the better.

When I grew up, I was taught that it was a sin to be anything but hetero. This led me to not only reject others but to reject myself. I didn’t have the label “bisexual” in my vernacular, but that’s exactly what I was (and am). I couldn’t accept that, and it caused harm. Changing my thinking on the issue has led to me being a much more loving and accepting person.

Same goes for Universalism. When I grew up, I was told that non-believers (as well as sinful believers – see Matthew 7) go to eternal hell when they die. This was terrifying. It caused me to have a lot of trauma. It also forced me to freeze in fear when it came to the one thing I, as a good evangelical, knew I was supposed to do: Evangelize. When I changed my thinking on this, when I let that doctrine go and replaced it with something much more redemptive and hopeful, everything changed. No longer do I live with that deep-seeded anxiety and worry. No longer do I freeze in terror over the thought of suffering for all eternity. This has liberated me to where I can enjoy the present moment and appreciate the world for all the beauty it contains.

So, I’m almost forced to ask: If you are an evangelical, when is the last time you truly repented? When is the last time you changed your mind about the LGBTQ community? Or, are you so fixed in your ways that no matter how much the world changes around you, you are going to dig in your heels and refuse to budge an inch? When is the last time you changed your mind about your stifling doctrines? Eternal damnation? Other people (never you) roasting in torture chamber either God created or allowed to be created that serves no other purpose than to cause perpetual suffering? An atonement theory where Jesus is not much more than God’s whipping boy? An escapist eschatology where you blast off into the sky, leaving the rest of us to suffer the consequences of a burning world in which you helped create?

I don’t ask these questions to be off-handed (okay, maybe a little). I truly am curious if anything you believe is on the table of repentance. Could you ever see yourself changing your thinking? Or is repentance just for those of us who’ve gone astray? I’ll let you sit with that for a bit.

Until next time.

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About Matthew Distefano
Matthew is a best-selling author, blogger, podcaster, long-time social worker, and hip-hop artist. He is an outspoken advocate for nonviolence, happily married, with one daughter. Outside of writing, his interests include gardening, hiking, and European football. He lives in Northern California You can read more about the author here.
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