Several years ago, I saw a car with the bumper sticker: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. I completely agreed with that sentiment. But judging by the car’s other bumper stickers, probably not for the same reasons as its driver. At any rate, that unknown driver and I shared this conviction: something has to change.
In fact, everyone agrees on that simple truth. We see and experience disharmony and conflict throughout the world, in our country, in our communities, and within ourselves. We rightly conclude that things are not as they should be. They are out of place, off-kilter. Something has to change.
Of course, as with that driver and me, we do not agree on what needs to change or how. Most of the time we think the problem is outside of ourselves. If only we can control and fix everything around us, then things would be set right. If we can fix the economy, the environment, the government, or whatever. . .then there will be peace. If I had a different job, or house, or wife, or body. . .then I would be happy. Of course, no one can control everything, and trying to do so doesn’t bring peace. It only makes a person more anxious – and annoying.
Every religion tries to answer this need for change. The ancient pagans thought that to set things right they needed to sacrifice more animals – or people – to the gods. Islam proclaims that the necessary change is submission to Allah. Buddhism proposes a practically never-ending and open-ended change. Christian Science tells us that it’s all in our heads; there’s actually nothing wrong at all. And so on.
It is said that, when a London newspaper asked Chesterton to contribute a piece addressing the question What’s wrong with the world, he sent a simple reply: I am. Although most likely apocryphal, the story captures Chesterton’s wit and, more importantly, the proper Christian response to what must change. We must.
Our Lord provides the authoritative articulation of this truth: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. These are not only the first words of His public ministry; they also characterize the whole of it. He has come to announce the needed change, which is interior, continuous, and centered on Him. We need to change ourselves – to turn away from sin and toward the Kingdom.
The original Greek for “Repent” – metanoiete – has two complementary senses. The Douay-Rheims translates it as Do penance, which indicates a change of external behavior, the reform of what we do. We must cease doing evil and learn to do good. (Is 1:16-17) But more importantly, metanoiete indicates something interior: a change of mind, a new way of thinking and of seeing the world. It requires that we reject the world’s view of things and adopt God’s.
Indeed, the external sense of conversion depends on the interior. An external change of behavior without an authentic conversion of heart produces a superficial and brittle disciple. He’s just trying to hold it together without any interior resources to do so. Like the seed on rocky ground, his conversion will wither for lack of roots.
Then there is that second part of our Lord’s proclamation, the reason for this metanoia: the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repentance does not exist for its own sake. It is ordered toward the Kingdom, which is Christ Himself. The follower of Christ turns away from the lie and unreality of sin and towards the truth and reality of Christ. If metanoia did not have this goal, then it would condemn us to progressivism’s rut of endless and purposeless change.
Which does not mean that Christian metanoia is a once-and-done thing. On the contrary, this change from sin to belief must be a fundamental and constant movement in Christian life. The Benedictines vow “conversion of life,” not as the decision of a moment but as a way of life, and for the rest of their lives. Saint John Henry Newman’s famous line – to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often – expresses the Christian’s continuous metanoia from sin to the Kingdom (and indeed only makes sense in that context).
To appreciate the challenge of this continuous conversion, we need to hear our Lord’s words in their immediate context: after His struggle with the devil and after John the Baptist’s arrest. (cf. Mt 4:12) This context of struggle and persecution indicates that the Christian metanoia will be opposed. The devil and the fallen world resist this change. They will tempt us to settle for something less – for partial conversion or for compromise with the world.
In her mission to continue Christ’s call to conversion, the Church faces the same opposition as He. Even some within the Church try to deter her. The theological surrender monkeys claim that what needs to change is the Church herself. If only she set aside the burdensome teachings and accommodate herself to the world, then people would find peace. Such has always been the Church’s temptation away from that metanoia to which her Bridegroom calls her.
Interior, continuous, and Christological. These three qualities characterize that defining act of the Christian: to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
*Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Riviere, 1898 [Guildhall Art Gallery, London]