How do we know if someone is truly repentant? How do we know if we are? In light of some of my recent posts, I’ve been asking myself those questions, and doing some careful thinking and self-examination.
These are a few of my thoughts.
While researching the topic of repentance, I found this helpful quote from Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman:
“A few verses before Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 about church discipline, he provides us with help for determining whether an individual is characteristically repentant: Would the person be willing to cut off a hand or tear out an eye rather than repeat the sin (Matt. 18:8-9)? That is to say, is he or she willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the sin? Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships.” (p. 72)
I like the phrase describing repentant people as “zealous about casting off their sin”. Many of us already know this, whether through study, personal experience, or instinct. For example, something just doesn’t sit right with us about a supposedly repentant adulterer who still wants to keep his mistress on as his secretary and travel with her on business. We wonder how repentant someone is if they refuse to adjust their lives in any meaningful sort of way, refuse to avoid further opportunity for sin, but expect us to take them at their word. (“I couldn’t resist my secretary before, but now I can. Trust me.”)
Some time back, I read the testimony of a marriage that healed after the wife’s affair. Her repentance came in stages; it was fully a year before she was willing to break off all contact with her affair partner. Needless to say, that year was agony for her husband, and painful evidence that she had not yet fully repented of her selfishness and lack of love. Her husband said he finally knew she was committed to faithfulness when she not only refused any further contact with the affair partner, but decided — unasked — to give up her professional career. She said she had destroyed her husband’s ability to trust her and didn’t want him to worry whenever she spent extended time with clients. That was her equivalent of cutting off her hand or gouging out her eye.
When we repent over sin, it’s rarely just the glaringly obvious sin that requires our repentance. If I lose my temper and yell harshly at my husband, the yelling may be just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to complex sins like adultery, there are a myriad of sinful actions, thoughts, and attitudes that lead up to the final deeds — and that’s why we should not be so quick to restore someone who is only repentant over acts of intercourse, rather than over the whole stinking rotten web of selfishness, deceit, and unholiness that brought him or her to that point. A wise Biblical counselor will work with the Holy Spirit, rather than abort the process. Covering up sin is never grace.
I’ve noticed, in myself, that I’m not truly repentant until I see the ugliness of my sin and am willing to take full responsibility for it. As long as I am attempting to minimize (“Well, at least I didn’t…”) or excuse (“Yeah, but…”) or explain (“You see, the reason…”) or garner sympathy (“I was in a bad place, and now I feel terrible!”) or demand anything (“You need to trust/forgive me!”) I am not truly repentant. As long as I am lacking in empathy for those I have offended and hurt (“What’s the big deal? Why can’t they get over it already?”) I am only repentant up to a point.
Again, a wise Biblical counselor will know these things, and — when necessary — will call the sinner out, restoring him gently in love or with a firm rebuke, whichever is most appropriate. That will, of course, require the counselor to possess compassion and tenderness along with wisdom and discernment. Unfortunately, at the risk of sounding sexist, I have to point out that male leaders often have a difficult time identifying with women in general, as well as with anyone they consider “weak”. I think that is the reason for the phenomena that distresses and confounds so many of us — that pastors far more readily sympathize with predators, pedophiles, and sex offenders than with those who have been wounded and violated.
Behind a lot of sin, but sexual sin in particular, is a sense of entitlement. The sinner thinks: I am entitled to sexual gratification…I am entitled to more than I am getting from my spouse…I am entitled to happiness…I am entitled to do whatever I want with that child…I am entitled to control others…she owes me…he has no right to refuse me…I am entitled to use others…I am entitled to take what I want…That sense of entitlement outweighs everything else until selfishness runs rampant. We don’t want to admit that when we sin. We don’t want to tell the horrible truth: “I did it because I wanted to and, at that moment, I cared more about myself than anyone else. I am without excuse.”
Even as I write those words, I am searching for loopholes in my mind: Come on, that doesn’t apply to every sin...when I was being a prodigal in my 20’s, I was reacting to trauma and pain…which is an explanation, but not an excuse. I chose how to react, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in unhealthy ways. No one dragged me kicking and screaming out of the church and forced me to be a prodigal. No one kept me from Jesus but myself.
We all sin out of our brokenness. What that means is that we need healing as well as forgiveness.
And now for a hypothetical situation…
Let’s say that there is a young man who sexually abused multiple children in two different churches (at least that we know of). He has repented, been convicted, and served time. He has also sought professional help, because he realizes that pedophilia, contrary to what some would claim, is not merely a sexual quirk or preference that can be replaced with another. (“Hey, I like blondes but I supposed I could learn to like brunettes.” “I prefer dudes but maybe I can try real hard to like girls.” “Well, I’m into two-year-olds but that’s probably only because I’ve never met an adult woman I liked!”) However, let’s assume that our hypothetical sex offender has gone through deep inner healing, and that the very thought of sexually abusing a child is now abhorrent to him.
A nice elder from his church decides to set him up with a young woman. “That’s very nice of you,” says the repentant young ex-pedophile, “but there is no way that I could ever marry. You see, because of the very serious nature of the crimes I committed, I am not allowed to be around children except under the supervision of a court-appointed, trained chaperone. I could never be alone with my own children. There is a very real possibility I wouldn’t be allowed to live in my own home with my own family. At best, my wife would have to become my trained chaperone, and would have to supervise me around the children, keeping us in her sight at all times. She could never leave them alone with me. She could never even go to the bathroom or take a shower by herself when I’m in the home. We could never have a normal family life. How could I possibly be so selfish as to inflict that on any wife or child?”
That would be true repentance.
A wise, compassionate pastor, noticing its absence, would say, “I cannot in good conscience stand by and allow you to sentence anyone to grow up in such dysfunction, or to place any woman in the awkward, stressful position of having to chaperone her own husband. What sort of husband or father could you possibly be, even if you could guarantee that you no longer pose a danger to children? No one is entitled to a wife and family, especially if they cannot properly fulfill the roles of husband and father. You lost the privilege of marriage when you committed your heinous crimes against innocent children. I’m disappointed that you would, once again, be willing to place others at risk because of your own selfishness and sense of entitlement.”
That would be common sense…and compassion.