The first leg on a journey back to God is forgiveness. Repentance is the second leg and best understood by what it is not.
What Repentance is not
It is not remorse, regret, lament, apology, feeling bad about, wishing it had never happened, depression, despair, sorrow, shame or guilt. Those are all valid emotions which ordinary people feel when they have done wrong, or at least when they think they have done wrong. But emotions are not actions.
Jesus never once asked anyone how they felt; but many times he asked them “What do you think?” Thinking governs actions. To repent is to act.
Jesus never asked how someone felt
Remorse is feeling so very bad about something that it destroys you. Judas betrayed Jesus and was engulfed by remorse so thoroughly he killed himself. That is not repentance.
Matthew 27:2-4 3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,
4 Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.Could Judas have repented and been restored to Jesus? Yes, but he did not.
Shame and guilt can trigger repentance
Shame and guilt engulfed Peter after he had denied he knew Jesus. He didn’t kill himself or anyone else, but he skulked back into the shadows until Jesus openly and publicly asked Peter to undo in his heart what he had done previously in front of others. Jesus asked him three times if he loved Him since Peter had denied him three times. From The Message
15 After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love (αγαπας) me more than these?” The word love here refers to the pure love of God.
“Yes, Master, you know I love (φιλω) you.” The word for love here refers to the love between persons, brothers, friends.
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 He then asked a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love (αγαπας) me?”
“Yes, Master, you know I love (φιλω) you.”
Jesus said, “Shepherd my sheep.”
17-19 Then he said it a third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love (φιλω) me?”
Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, “Do you love me?” so he answered, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.”
Peter knew what it meant to really repent. He believed he loved Jesus with God’s love, and could after the betrayal only confess to (φιλω) the love of mankind. But he did make as many confessions of love as he had of betrayal. In the Bible is pays to note patterns of behavior.
The English really cannot know these different words for love, essential to correct interpretation. Peter was required by the circumstances to agree and also recognize that his love was not as devoted and as unconditional as he had originally believed. Peter found out the truth about himself in this scenario. Peter was not only restored, he became one of the most aggressive of apostles.
Sorrow, lament, depression
Sorrow was what Mary felt when she saw her son die. Lament was what the women did at Golgotha. (Matt 27:55 And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: 56 Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedees children. ) Depression is a long term response to anger turned inward. The cure for depression is not repentance but praise. Isaiah 61:3.
Repentance means change your mind
Enough of what it is not. Repentance defined is, using a translation of the Greek word metnoia, (meta=change, nous=mind), solely to change your mind. This takes an act of the will. It does not mean that you really need to know very much. The simplest person can change his/her mind.
I once worked for a gifted attorney; in fact she had never lost a case. Even though she attended church and Sunday school every week, (and her husband was a preacher’s kid), she told me that she hoped she would do enough good in her life to be accepted in heaven. Clearly she had not one clue what true salvation was all about. She needed a mental change. What will happen to bring her to this? I have no idea but clearly weekly preaching has not done it for her. Will she have a sudden realization of her lost-ness?
As one who worked with prisoners for years I saw people in jail who did not see their condition until they had a realization of the love of God. One murderer said he broke down in sobs when he realized that he had killed someone that God loved.
Bringing people to repentance
The Bible says there are two ways to get people saved: one is kind and gentle words of love, and the other is pure-T scaring them into the Kingdom.
Jude 1:21 Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. 22 And of some have compassion, making a difference: 23 And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.
God uses all methods to bring man to Himself.