Observations on the word “Repentance”
When I was arrived in Belgium in late 1964 for my Mission to France and Belgium, I had no language training, and I spoke no French. My first goal was to learn it so that I could teach the Gospel in French.
One of the things I learned while studying French, was that there were some concepts in English that could be translated directly into French very accurately – while preserving the meaning of what the words meant very clearly. But I also learned that there were some concepts in English that were very difficult to translate into French, because there were no French words that created exactly the same concept as the English words did. Also, there were some concepts in French for which there were no appropriate English words. The best that could be done in both cases was to describe an approximation of the concept in question by sort of talking all around it.
For example, in French, there is no word that is equivalent to the English word “leadership”. All the French words (e.g., chef, patron) that have to do with leaders tend to carry a connotation of domination, which is not appropriate to the English word, so one has to describe what is meant by “Leadership” while trying to avoid all the French words that connote power and dominance.
There is a problem of translating INTO English as well. When I taught a lesson to the High Priest’s Quorum a few years ago, I brought to the discussion no less than seven Greek words that are all found in the New Testament, and all of them are translated into the English word “love”. Yet there are distinct and understandable differences between each of the seven Greek words, but none of those differences carried over into the single English word.
Similarly, there are two Hebrew words found in the Old Testament, and two Greek words found in the New Testament that are all translated into English as “repent”. The two Hebrew words distinguish a difference, and the two Greek words roughly distinguish the same difference, and so the two languages can be translated back and forth in an approximate equivalence to each other, but each of the four words is translated into English as “repent” or some variation thereof, and there is no second word in English to use to distinguish the differences that exist in the Hebrew and Greek usage.
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament the two words that are used in the concept of repentance are:
1. NACHAM - to lament, to grieve. This word is describing the emotions that are aroused when one is motivated to take a different course of action. It means to see that your present course of action is wrong in some way, causing a motivation to take action to change it.
2. SHUB - This word expresses a radical change of mind toward sin and implies a conscious moral separation from sin and a decision to forsake it (to turn away from it) and agree with God.
In the Greek of the New Covenant, the two words used which parallel the Hebrew usage are:
1. METAMELOMAI - to have feeling or care, concern or regret which is akin to remorse.
2. METANOEO - to have another mind; to re-think; to change – your mind, your approach, your habits, your goals -- to turn from the idols of sin and of self, toward God.
In both Greek and Hebrew one of the words refers to a simple changing of mind without any connotation of the kind of self-loathing or bitter sorrow that we often associate with the English “repent”.
Because we use one word where Greek and Hebrew use two, it is worth our time to consider that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written (mostly) in Greek. There is a difference in meaning in how the two words are used in both the Old Testament and New Testament that can be obscured or even lost in the translation into English.
Now, it may be, on some occasions, that a grievous sin has been committed that justifies all the most negative aspects of the word “repent”, but I believe that a much more common situation is the simple realization that what we have been doing is slightly off course and needs to be adjusted.
When we drive a car, we are always adjusting our trajectory by turning the steering wheel – sometimes to make only very slight, but absolutely essential, changes in direction. It is just a simple change in direction.
Sometimes we have to make more dramatic changes, and sometimes we must make drastic changes in steering and moreover, use the brakes as well. This would be more akin to the meaning of “repent” with the full application of all of its negative connotations.
We are told to “repent daily”, and for many of us that “repentance” may be more akin to the slight adjustments we make while driving on a relatively straight section of highway. This kind of change would be more like the Greek METANOEO – to make a needed change in trajectory, because not to make the change, small as it may be, would lead to disaster in the long run. This kind of repentance is like turning away from the ditches along the side of the road and toward the center of our lane.
This is the “repentance” that we should emphasize every day. We should pay attention to our daily lives just as we pay attention to where the car we are driving is heading. And, just as we see the need to make changes to our steering, we need to see what is happening in our daily lives and make the adjustments that are needed.
This is what it means to repent every day.