The following was originally written for the January newsletter of a church I served as pastor.
As we turn the calendar to January, conversations often include New Year’s resolutions. Did you promise yourself to get in shape? Save more money? Watch less TV? Eat less junk food? Read more? Break a bad habit? Start a good habit? In order to do any of these things, you must repent. That’s right, repent. But that may not mean what you think it means. The Greek word is metanoia and the literal translation is simply to “change one’s mind.” The Hebrew word is shub which means “to turn around.” The implication is that if you change your mind you will also change your behavior. All too often, when I hear people talking about repentance it turns out they are really talking about confession, which is acknowledging a wrongdoing and apologizing for it. To be truly repentant requires more than saying you’re sorry – it requires that you stop doing whatever it was that make you feel sorry in the first place. Without repentance, the confession is meaningless. In non-religious language, if the behavior continues, saying you’re sorry doesn’t count for much.
Conversations about repentance often include talking about sin, and especially about original sin, which was the notion that human beings are by nature sinful. The Greek word that has been translated as sin is hamartia, but it originally had nothing to do with the nature of humanity – it simply meant “to miss the mark.” A close derivation of the word was hamartanein, which was an archery term to describe an archer hitting an outer ring of the target rather than the center.
By the time you read this, you may have already broken a New Year’s resolution. That’s okay. Keep at it. If you were an archer who missed the bulls-eye on your first attempt, you would simply note to yourself what you did wrong (confession), adjust your aim and try again (repent). And again. And again. Unless you’re a modern-day Robin Hood, you may not ever hit the exact center of the target, but eventually you could get most of your arrows in the bulls-eye, or at least you’ll stop getting all of them in the outer ring.
Now that you know what the words originally meant, consider this – sinning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person, it just means you need more practice. If you find yourself missing the mark and not living quite the way Jesus taught, adjust your aim so you do better next time and keep trying. Repent.