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What Is Repentance?

I used to think that repentance and forgiveness were the same thing, but now I’m beginning to see that repentance is the next step.

With forgiveness, we’re saying “I’m sorry”; with repentance you’re saying “I’m going to make sure I never do that again.”  It requires a change; going off in a different direction.

When forgiveness results in a change of mind and heart, you have repentance.

For example, if you’ve reached a point when you’re ready to admit that an addiction has been a problem and you go through the steps of forgiveness, you aren’t repentant until you turn away from temptation every time it confronts you. This may seem too much if we think of a lifetime, but as they say in AA “just for today”; or as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, “little by little, day by day.”  Forgiveness can be a series of actions; whereas repentance is how you live your life, day by day.

The concept of repentance is not one I’ve heard much of in the Baha’i Faith and when I talk about it, people tell me “it’s a Christian concept”.  This is true, and because truth repeats through every dispensation, it didn’t disappear with this one.  Ocean, for example, lists over 250 places where the word appears.

Repentance is the process of returning from disobedience to obedience through purification:

Repentance is the return from disobedience to obedience. Man, after remoteness and deprivation from God, repents and undergoes purification: and this is a symbol signifying “O God! make my heart good and pure, freed and sanctified from all save Thy love.  (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 91)

Other words for repentance include:

  • Apologize
  • Regret
  • Sorrow
  • Remorse
  • Penitence
  • Atonement
  • Shame
  • Contrition
  • Penance

Let’s look at them one at a time and see what the Baha’i Writings have to say about each.

Apologize

Perhaps the greatest test Bahá’ís are ever subjected to is from each other; but for the sake of the Master they should be ever ready to overlook each other’s mistakes, apologize for harsh words they have uttered, forgive and forget. He strongly recommends to you this course of action.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 601)

Regret:

But this wronged one, this prisoner, did his utmost to hide and veil their doings, that haply they might regret and repent.    (Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 24)

Sorrow:

Every time My name “the All-Merciful” was told that one of My lovers had breathed a word that runneth counter to My wish, it repaired, grief-stricken and disconsolate to its abode; and whenever My name “the Concealer” discovered that one of My followers had inflicted any shame or humiliation on his neighbor, it, likewise, turned back chagrined and sorrowful to its retreats of glory, and there wept and mourned with a sore lamentation. And whenever My name “the Ever-Forgiving” perceived that any one of My friends had committed any transgression, it cried out in its great distress, and, overcome with anguish, fell upon the dust, and was borne away by a company of the invisible angels to its habitation in the realms above.  (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 308)

Remorse:

This mortal life is sure to perish; its pleasures are bound to fade away and ere long ye shall return unto God, distressed with pangs of remorse, for presently ye shall be roused from your slumber, and ye shall soon find yourselves in the presence of God and will be asked of your doings.  (The Báb, Fire and Light, p. 18)

Penitence:

Men may be made in the image of God, yet (as the Bible presents it) the history of the tribes and peoples and nations of the world, of the Hebrews and the Gentiles, reflects at no time the order and harmony and the happiness of a divine world. It is a tale of turmoil and vicissitude, of struggle and trouble, of sorrow and loneliness and penitence, of bitter shame, and hopes lost and hearts broken. (George Townshend, The Heart of the Gospel, p. 20)

Atonement:

Arise, and, under the eyes of God, atone for your failures in duty towards Him. This is My commandment unto you, were ye to incline your ears unto My commandment.  (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 293)

There is no doubt that there is vicarious atonement for others, and our sufferings sometimes can be in the nature of a sacrifice accepted for others. But where to draw the line is a mystery. If you take better care of your own health, and build up your reserves, it would certainly be better for you and for your work. Then your sensitive, yearning heart, although you may still often suffer for and with others, will be better able to withstand its trials, and you will not get so exhausted, which is certainly no asset to your work for the Cause.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)

Shame:

Commit not, O people, that which will bring shame upon you or dishonor the Cause of God in the eyes of men, and be not of the mischief-makers. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 277)

Every time the sin committed by any one amongst them was breathed in the Court of His Presence, the Ancient Beauty would be so filled with shame as to wish He could hide the glory of His countenance from the eyes of all men, for He hath, at all times, fixed His gaze on their fidelity, and observed its essential requisites.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 309)

Contrition:

Thou seest me rolling my face in the dust of humility and contrition, supplicating toward the Kingdom of Thy Might, yearning for the contemplation of Thy Greatness, entreating Thy Grandeur, invoking at the Threshold of Thy Mercifulness, beseeching the realm of Thy Singleness, acknowledging my shortcomings, longing for Thy bounty, desiring Thy concealing veil and expecting the outpouring of the rain of Thy favor upon all the meadows and mountains!  (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 570)

Penance:

In this Book He . . . prohibits . . .  penance.  (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 14)

What do these quotes teach us?

While penance is forbidden, there are some concrete steps we can take:

  • Supplicate, entreat and beseech God for His concealing veil
  • Yearn for contemplation of His Greatness
  • Acknowledge your shortcomings
  • Atone for your failures
  • Long for and expect God’s bounty and favor
  • Take care of your health and build up your reserves
  • Don’t do anything that would bring shame on you or dishonor the Faith in the eyes of men
  • Don’t make mischief
  • Overlook the faults of others
  • Apologize for any harsh words you may have uttered
  • Forgive and forget (this includes forgiving yourself!)

What have you learned from this?  Post your comments below!