Swedenborg is careful to emphasize that “repentance,” as he defines it, doesn’t just mean confessing our sins, being forgiven, and then forgetting about it and going right back to what we were doing before. In order to truly repent, we need to change our ways.
Swedenborg closely links repentance with our regeneration and describes four steps in the process of repentance. We need to (1) regularly examine ourselves, (2) recognize aspects in our life which we now see are against God’s wish and from which we need to be freed, (3) seek God’s help in doing this, which we do as if by ourselves, and (4) begin to live a new life as the result of this activity.
These steps are described in further detail here:
1. Examine ourselves.
We have to start by looking not only at our actions, but our motives. This doesn’t just apply to obvious sins, like theft or adultery, but also to the things we think about and dwell upon in everyday life. Have we been selfish? Egotistical? Unkind? Dishonest? Have we harbored resentments and nursed grudges when we should have been more forgiving? Have we openly or secretly controlled and manipulated others when we should have shown respect for their freedom and individuality? In declaring this as the first step in the regeneration process, Swedenborg anticipated the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the twelve-step movement by two hundred years!
2. Recognize and admit our sins.
“Sin” can mean different things to different people. When Swedenborg talks about sin, he’s usually referring to the sins listed in the Ten Commandments (murder, adultery, stealing, and lying, for example). These are the sins that prevent us from loving our neighbor—that is, loving others in general. It’s obvious that anyone who murders, steals from, or lies to their neighbor is not acting in a loving way. But when these sins are removed, the way is opened for God to flow in with genuine love for others.
Swedenborg says that if we want to be regenerated, we have to want to manifest God’s love in the world. That’s why this step is so important. When we know what kind of a person we truly want to be, we need to recognize that we have not been acting in ways that are consistent with our highest aspirations. This is what Swedenborg means when he says that this second step is to recognize and admit our sins. We do this because we want to be better people.
3. Pray to the Lord.
An important part of this step is admitting that we need help. Ever tried to kick a bad habit? Go on a strict diet? It’s not easy. Sometimes we may experience success; at other times we find ourselves right back where we started. Much more difficult is removing those deeply ingrained traits, habits, patterns, and attitudes that prevent us from realizing our true inner nature. The removal of everything that stands in the way of our becoming fully human, loving, and wise is much more than we can handle by ourselves. That’s why Swedenborg says we need to ask God for help.
4. Begin a new life.
This is the hardest part; we have to put our intention into practice. It’s all right if we don’t always succeed, as long as we learn from our mistakes. The important thing is that we never stop trying to do better.
It’s important to remember that this part of the process does not end with prayer. After prayer, we still must do all we can to work towards the spiritual goals we have set for ourselves. We must, of course, believe that God is working the miracle of inner change within us. But we must also believe that it cannot happen without our cooperation and do the necessary work. Our real efforts become the fulfillment of our prayers.
In the following passage from True Christianity 535, Swedenborg talks about many of the things we have mentioned in the first three steps. He concludes by reminding us how easy it is to read and believe these things, and yet, how hard it is to do them:
"It is amazing but true that it is easy for any of us to rebuke someone else who is intending to do evil and say, 'Don’t do that—that’s a sin!' And yet it is difficult for us to say the same thing to ourselves. The reason is that saying it to ourselves requires a movement of the will, but saying it to someone else requires only a low level of thought based on things we have heard. ...
All people who do good actions as a religious practice avoid actual evils. It is extremely rare, though, that people reflect on the inner realms that belong to their will. They suppose that because they are involved in good actions they are not involved in evil actions, and even that their goodness covers up their evil.
But, my friend, to abstain from evils is the first step in gaining goodwill. The Word teaches this. The Ten Commandments teach it. Baptism teaches it. The Holy Supper teaches it.
Reason, too, teaches it. How could any of us escape from our evils or drive them away without ever taking a look at ourselves? How can our goodness become truly good without being inwardly purified?
I know that all devout people and also all people of sound reason who read this will nod and see it as genuine truth; yet even so, only a few people are going to do what it says."