How do we bring someone to repentance?
The first way is ‘fire and brimstone’: threats of hellfire if the person doesn’t adhere to the right way of thinking, along with psychological coercion, perhaps violence.
A second way is love.
Our Lord used three approaches when preaching repentance: the threat of hellfire, the promise of a reward and the ideal of love between God and man as between Father and son. At no time did he engage in physical violence, even against those who were going to crucify him.
The Fathers consider that the first method, threats of hellfire, pertains to the person of the lowest rank spiritually: the person is a mere slave, a dullard who will do nothing unless the whip is close at hand.
The Fathers consider that the second method pertains to persons of the middle rank spiritually: those whose relationship to God and man is that of a hireling: they work for a reward, coolly adding everything up to see what is to their advantage, as if God were running a corporation.
The Fathers consider that the third method pertains to persons of the highest rank spiritually: those whose relationship to God and man is that of love. These persons consider that they are children of God; they often consciously bear God within themselves.
In our own humble experience, perhaps because we are dolts, we have never had good success when persons—say Evangelicals on the street—have applied the first method, the method of threats, to us. We don’t respond well. We have a distrust of fanaticism and fanatics find the first method congenial to their spirit: they can indulge their impassioned spirit in exhorting us to repent.
We would like to consider ourselves above the rank spiritual utilitarianism and opportunism implied by the second approach, that of the hireling, although spiritually we probably are even lower than such a straightforward calculus of costs and benefits. Pascal’s wager is at this second level.
In our humble experience we have found that when persons of genuine love—and a person knows intuitively when the other person has real love or is faking it—then we have responded well and the other person has been successful. He or she has been able to reach us and to get us to change our ways for the better.
It is also true that when we were young we were deceived by persons with a false love. It is well to consider in this regard what the Lord said, that if anyone’s will was to do the will of his Father, that person would know by a personal spiritual assurance whether the Lord’s teaching was from God or not. Hence, it might be considered that we are deceived by persons of a false love when we are not seeking God but the satisfaction of one of our passions.
In this regard it is also well to consider that in leading a man to repentance, God’s love might express itself in what might seem unusual ways: he might bring the man to the edge of death to help him understand just where he stands spiritually.
God might even might bring disaster upon the sinner. It is certain that God’s love is inerrantly aimed at our good, but we have to consider that that good is seen from the perspective of the loving God who is also just and cannot violate his love by being unjust. It would be unloving not to be just because it would be a lie.
In any event, we have found that an Elder of true spiritual love changes the world around him. It helps if he has charisms but it is his love that transforms the other: that love that seeks out the ‘lost sheep’ in the soul of the other and carries it on its shoulders to God.
May we all experience both the love of God and genuine repentance so as to become children of the Holy Trinity.