Repentance (turning toward the good) is everything prior to development involving approaching the good.
Dealing with the moment prior to repentance is at best Socratic. The condition of most of Socrates’ interlocutors was NOT knowing they had unhealthy souls (read need of repentance). The self-knowledge of ones own condition is everything, and Socrates sought, in his conversations, to produce it. But Socrates never forced it. Repentance CANNOT be forced. It MUST be voluntarily embraced. Repentance is libertarian.
The moment of repentance is often initially in seed form a moment of feeling and trouble. What must happen is that the avoidance of feeling is converted into an avoidance of wrongdoing or the pursuance of what is bad (unrighteousness). Otherwise the moment of repentance risks turning in another wrong direction (simply aiming at avoidance of pain or suffering is not enough to redirect safely–too often it results in the proverbial “out of the pan and into the fire”).
Let us not move beyond the difficulty here. The difficulty may be so great so as to be insurmountably paradoxical. Then it would be nicely Kierkegaardian. And it is. Repentance is the moment of the choice toward the good made from the bad condition. How is this possible? Reason cannot grasp it. But whether this is a limitation on reason or a sign that reality is otherwise cannot be decided by the paradoxical nature of repentance. My hunch is to bet on the limitedness of reason and the unclarity of intellectual vision related to the character of the one who goes in for repentance. I hold out much hope in the possibility of progress despite the rarity of its attainment.
But, to linger on the difficulty once more in the form of a question: “How can I, from my bad state, have clear recognition of my bad state, and rightly shun my bad state?” or “How can the bad begin what is good?” or “Why would he who is pointed in a bad direction that he otherwise deems good (otherwise why would he be pointing) decide to turn and how would he see clearly what the new good is that is to take the place of what has been good so far (but is really bad)?” Repentance seems to imply someone in good condition to adequately repent. Where is that one in the prior-to-repentance individual?
Don’t forget the the great sages have had similar things to say about the difficulty in understanding development. In John 3 the sage Jesus calls it the second-birth. When Nicodemus asks him how this is possible he tells Nicodemus that the situation is not unlike the situation we are in with the wind: we know that it is but not where it comes from or where it goes. Similarly, we do not understand the “why” or the “how” of second-birth (becoming virtuous), but that it happens is as obvious as the wind. People make progress.
Socrates has a similar message for Meno in the dialogue named after Meno by Plato. Meno asks Socrates how to acquire virtue. “How do you get virtue, where from?” asks Meno. Socrates’ answer is at best unsatisfying. It is a gift from the gods he says. This is no answer that will satisfy reason any better than Jesus’ answer would satisfy the question of Nicodemus. But we can testify to virtuous men. So, we must acknowledge its reality among men even if we don’t understand how it gets there.
Back to repentance. Repentance is the moment of beginning. It is the moment of choice, change, redirection. Everything that comes later hinges on the sincerity, honesty, and meaning in the choice to change.
For this reason the one confronted with the desire for or appearance of repentance (turning toward the good) should approach it with caution insofar as it is possible that the moment is being used for ulterior motives. How suspicious! Yes, but note that whether you are dealing with another or with yourself you have reason to be suspicious. You are dealing with an individual who is self-admitting being in a bad state. Maybe self-admitting. Maybe trying to score points. Maybe trying to improve status in a community where repentance is praised. And note that such communities extend well beyond the religious. Example? The politician who it is revealed said or did something that some group doesn’t like and “comes out” to “apologize”. That there is any reality behind the appearance is doubtful in many cases.
Finally, sincere turning is a reason to modify judgment and punishment through mercy. “Blessed are the merciful” is well known in some circles but often misunderstood and misused to promote illegitimate leniency. Much earthly harm has been done to the innocent and good through the leniency of misunderstood mercy.
One does not treat he who has not turned mercifully by not confronting his evil or withholding punishment. There is no real mercy here. Mercy is for the repentant. And the repentance must be real. The problem is that it cannot be verified third-person but only with probability and based on evidence of real change. And the probability is best measured over time. How often, at the moment of punishment, have tears been generated by the punished to give the appearance of repentance when the motivation is merely to use repentance as a way of escaping punishment.
How can I sit and be so sure about the misuse of repentance and the presentation of appearance without reality (facade)? First-person experience. I know the acts well. I have been a rogue and may still be. What proof do you have otherwise?
Mercy is for the repentant. One cannot extend mercy to another by withholding punishment or trouble while they are still engaged in wrongdoing. One cannot extend mercy to he who is caught in wrongdoing but unrepentant. It is not mercy to prevent that natural consequences of vice and evil from troubling he who invites them. It is injustice. Keeping from a man what he has earned and asked for. “Ask and you shall receive.” Justice demands equality in transaction. Trouble for vice is natural and just. To deny it to the vicious is to treat them unjustly.
The moment’s reality is relative to the sincerity of the one repenting. Such sincerity is ultimately unverifiable from the third-person perspective, but it can be approximated over time relative to the consistency with which the turning is carried out. The reality is that one can “fake” repentance as easily as anything else. But, time is the best indicator of whether the turning is real.
So, have I meant it? Time will tell. If I find that I have not meant it, then it is grace (gift) that I am allowed another try. THIS time will be different I say. Really? So far the inductive data collection places bets on my not meaning it, my not being sincere. But what of the increase in time between failures? Is this any consolation? Of course it is.
To go a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade without vice in a noted area is to make real progress. To have achieved each in succession with different beginnings means that each of the beginnings were more sincere, more honest, more real. This means that I can improve in my capacity to repent which is no more than improving in my capacity to mean what I say. This only bodes well for my future. All the sages have recommended sincerity in speech:
Buddha’s Eightfold Path involves “right speech” in Turning the Wheel of Dharma.
Socrates says that one of two fundamental moral principles is, “Keep commitments” in The Crito.
Jesus says that one should not even need promise but let “yes be yes and no be no” in the Sermon on the Mount.
And so it goes.