Repentance and change

The challenge of maintaining change

Mar 10, 2024

Informed Opinion - Prof Xavier V. Pereira

The season of Lent is upon us again. Repentance is a consistent theme during the season. The word Metanoia, an ancient Greek word meaning ‘changing one’s mind’ is often heard from pulpits. The season of Lent also coincides with the initial third of the year. Many make resolutions during the New Year, and Christians often review these resolutions during Lent. Failure to adhere to these resolutions can result in either trying again or waiting for an appropriate time to make resolutions afresh. Some people give up trying to change because of repeated failures.

Metanoia is often the experience of those who have gone through a life changing experience. This can be a God experience like that of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9: 1-22). Mine was at a charismatic retreat in Bangalore in November 1982, preached by the lay evangelist Fritz Mascrenhas. One of the verses that provoked repentance was Isaiah 53: 6 – “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way: and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all”
Repentance in the Christian tradition acknowledges God’s great love for us, our turning away from God, and our returning to God through Jesus Christ.

Repentance is also a key concept in other religions. In Islam, the Arabic word tawba means to repent, and the Malay translation of the word is bertaubat.

Repentance is Ongoing and not One Off
Many Christians, especially non-Catholic Christians, believe that repentance is one off. They also use the term backslide to describe a person who returns to his or her old ways. Thus, the person who backslides may have to repent again. This phenomenon of repenting, backsliding, and repenting again, sheds light on the fact that repentance is not one off but a repetitive exercise.

I was introduced to the concept of ongoing repentance by the Redemptorist priest Fr Gino Henriques, who was the chairman of the National Service Team of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of India in the 1980s. Ongoing repentance acknowledges our repeated failing and falling, and the need of repetitive seeking and implementing of transformative change in our lives through the Holy Spirit. The liturgy of the Mass also acknowledges our need for ongoing repentance through the Penitential Rite in the beginning of every Mass. Healthy ongoing repentance fills a person with remorseful hope and not guilt, and the insight that we often relapse but will be forgiven seventy times seven, by a loving God.

The Cycle of Change
The model of the Cycle of Change by Prochaska and DiClemente (1983) helps us understand our efforts to make change and maintain change.

This cycle of change was first applied to people who were addicted to substances. The changing of behaviour in this model of change involves moving through five cognitive stages – precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

It is unlikely that a person will repent or make change if the person is not thinking about change. The precontemplation stage is precisely a stage in which a person does not think there is a need for personal change.

The word contemplate in the Oxford Language Dictionary means ‘to think about’ or ‘to think deeply or at length’. In several religions including Christianity, people are exhorted to think deeply or at length about their sinfulness and the need to repent.

The contemplation stage and other stages of change are well depicted in the Parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). The wayward son in this parable, after hitting rock bottom, began thinking of returning to his father. He prepared himself (preparation stage) by rehearsing the words he would say to his father and was willing to work as a servant in his father’s household. He finally summoned the courage to face his father against whom he had grievously sinned (action stage). He was surprised by the unconditional love and acceptance of the father which most likely would have assisted him in maintaining change.

Thus, (loving) social support is instrumental in maintaining change. Social support can be sourced from significant others including family members and friends, and a healthy religious community.

The failure to maintain change is termed relapse. To prevent relapse in people who have addiction issues, relapse prevention strategies are utilised to maintain change. These would include addressing both external cues (e.g. the places where substances are sold) and internal cues (e.g. a change of mood that drives a person to elevate the mood with substances). These strategies can also be applied to addiction to pornography and technology which is rampant in the present day and age.

To maintain transformative or positive change, avoidance of the exposure to temptation that will likely overwhelm a person leading to relapse, is wisely elucidated by Jesus in the prayer that He gave us (Matthew 6: 9-13). The, avoidance of temptation is further emphasised in the ‘cutting off of the sinful hand’ and the ‘gouging out of the sinful eye’ (Matthew 5: 29, 30).

Psychotherapy can also assist people in making positive change. Some people though, are reluctant to change their unhealthy behaviours. Among this group are people who have traits of a personality disorder or fulfil the criteria for a personality disorder and often do not have the insight that their behaviours are destructive to self and to others.

Psychotherapy is an excellent tool to exact change but the therapist needs to be trained under supervision and be certified. Sadly, this is not the case of many who claim to be therapists in Malaysia, unlike in countries like Australia, the UK, the USA and many others.

Change is difficult, and maintaining change is even more difficult.

(Xavier V. Pereira is a medical doctor, psychiatrist and internationally certified interpersonal psychotherapist, supervisor, and trainer. He is on the Malaysian Ministry of Health’s Taskforce for Psychotherapy. He is also the founder chair of the Catholic Counsellors and Therapists of Malaysia.)

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