Repentance 


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.

The open letter I wish Douglas Wilson had written

Pastors are not infallible. None of us are. Sometimes we want to believe so desperately that someone has repented and changed, that he or she is trustworthy, and that the past is in the past, that we throw caution to the wind…only to have our trust betrayed. “But they promised…!” 

Humility enables us to admit that we were duped, overly trusting, naive, mistaken, whatever. Pride blinds us and makes us prone to repeat our mistakes.

First some background: Doug Wilson’s Failure to Safeguard Children

And now the open letter that I wish Douglas Wilson had written, instead of the numerous blog entires he has been churning out of late:

In light of the recent court proceedings involving Steven Sitler, and the resultant coverage of those proceedings in the media, I believe that it is necessary for me to make a public statement taking full responsibility for my actions in this matter. Rather than get bogged down in details that are readily available elsewhere on the internet, I would like to confess the following.

I made several grave errors in judgment. As Mike Sloan and Beth Hart have stated, “Offenders are masters of deception and manipulation, often saying what people want to hear so that they attract attention and compassion toward themselves and away from their victims.” I was deceived. But it’s worse than that: my pride prevented me from listening to the warnings and advice of others with more knowledge and expertise.

Furthermore, I misapplied the Scriptures that state it is better to marry than burn, and that each man should have his own wife because of the temptation to sexual immorality. Obviously Steven Sitler is not dealing with garden-variety sexual temptation. His desire to abuse, molest, and harm children will not be fulfilled or healed by the love of a good woman, and it was naive of me to think so.

I believe in the power of the gospel to transform lives; however, it was both naive and prideful of me to think that I could judge whether or not Steven Sitler’s repentance was genuine. Anyone can appear godly and contrite in half a dozen meetings in his pastor’s office — especially when the pastor is, like me, unqualified and untrained in counseling sex offenders — and the fact that he was willing to read some books means little. Furthermore, if he was truly repentant, he would understand and accept that he can never have a close relationship with any child, and certainly cannot be in an authority position over one. Thus, a Biblical marriage — one that is open to life — would be out of the question for him.

If I had to do it over again, I would have advised the elder in my church to give up on his misguided matchmaking efforts. I would have advised against marriage for Steven Sitler, and quoted Matthew 18:6 to him at every opportunity. It would be far better for a serial pedophile to have a great millstone around his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea than for him to have the opportunity to harm and damage any more children. If we would not allow him to babysit children in our church nursery, certainly we cannot encourage him to have children of his own. It was wrong of me to perform that marriage ceremony.

I wish to repent publicly of my pride, arrogance, and lack of compassion.

Furthermore, I wish to repent of erroneous statements I have made regarding the very nature of marriage itself. Years ago, I foolishly wrote, “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants.” What a mischaracterization of the beauty and tenderness God intends for the sexual relationship! What an offensive way to describe the act that God designed to be an expression and means of intimacy, unity, and fruitfulness! 

In addition, I maligned many good, decent, loving men by claiming, “Men dream of being rapists.” I should have stated that only ungodly, immoral, depraved men would dream of such a thing, and that men with these desires need to repent immediately — and women need to protect themselves from these men until they demonstrate lasting fruit of repentance. Counseling by someone far more qualified than I am would probably be in order as well.

I deeply regret that much harm that has been caused by my pride, foolishness, poor judgment, and grave error. I pray that those I have harmed and offended would find it in their hearts to forgive me. I am grief-stricken over how I have contributed to the sufferings of even just one innocent child. May God have mercy on us all.

Of course what Douglas Wilson has really written is nothing like this.

When complimenting women

I’ve been in a number of situations where various men, who I prefer to believe were clueless as opposed to ill-intentioned, complimented women in a way that obviously caused them to feel awkward and uncomfortable. I have also heard men complain that women can no longer “take a compliment”. So I offer the following to any man willing to listen.

This is not a “how to flirt” list, nor is it “how to compliment your wife”. Instead, it assumes a non-romantic relationship, although some of the suggestions would apply to any relationship, and to women as complimenters as well as men.

  1. Consider the relationship. Just because a man may notice something about me does not make it appropriate for him to comment on it.
  2. With non-relatives, be very cautious about giving complements you would never give to a man. You would never say something like, “You’re such a sweet little man and you always dress in the cutest clothes!” You might say, “I appreciate how kindly you treat others. And I like that jacket. It looks great.”
  3. Treat the object of your compliment as a person, first and foremost.  You don’t need to keep reminding her that she is a woman, or act as if you can’t get past her femaleness. (See #2. The way I adapt these guideline is by not complementing a non-relative male on any masculine attribute — which would most likely be inappropriate anyway — and by not adding the slightest hint of a sexual overtone by emphasizing his gender. I might say, “You have a unique musical talent,” but I won’t say, “You are such a talented man.”)
  4. Don’t use “compliments” as a means of embarrassing women and girls. Be succinct and make sure the compliment is welcome. Compliment something you honestly believe the recipient would want you to affirm. If not, apologize (“I’m sorry if I was out of line” or “I’m sorry for embarrassing you”) and then be quiet. 
  5. Don’t be effusive and don’t gush. That’s just creepy.
  6. Make sure there is an altruistic purpose to your compliments. As Christians, we should encourage one another, but we need to be careful that we are encouraging the right things in the right ways. The compliment should be for her benefit, not yours. Don’t use flattery to manipulate. Try to never put a woman in the awkward place of wondering about your interest or motives, or being creeped out by your attention.
  7. Be specific. “You’re terrific” or “you’re nice” can sound like insincere flattery or an attempt at flirting. If sincere, it communicates nothing of substance, other than “I like you” — and such declarations are usually, depending on the circumstances, unnecessary or best left unsaid. (See #1) If the compliment is to be meaningful and beneficial to the receiver (see #6) then it needs to be specific: “Your tireless work behind the scenes does not go unnoticed or unappreciated”; “I admire how you stood up to that guy — that took courage and grace”; “You have a way of making us all feel welcome, as if we are your personal guests”; “You are so patient with our son, and so encouraging”; “You have a way with words and a level of insight I appreciate — your latest article is just one example”; “You made the unpleasant ordeal of picking out a new washing machine not an ordeal at all! You were so good at sizing up our needs and wants, and helping us find the right machine. You made it easy, so easy it was almost fun! You have a great sense of humor — I had no idea laundry could be so hilarious.”
  8. Compliment only what you have observed to be true. This can include repeating a compliment you’ve heard/read, as in, “Wow, your play sure got rave reviews!” or “Your parents told me you did great!” But don’t offer meaningless speculation or assume anything about her character, experiences, beliefs, future plans, etc. You might end up looking like a fool or — far worse — might inadvertently make her feel terrible.
  9. Keep your compliments appropriate to the context. If it’s a professional setting, be professional. Affirm her professionalism, work, knowledge, skill, etc. but don’t intrude on her personal life or pretend to “know” other things about her. (See #7. I don’t know any woman who, in her professional life, wants some relative stranger to insist, “I can tell you’re the sort of person who…” especially if he them spouts meaningless flattery.)
  10. Unless she is about 6 years old or younger, avoid words like “cute” or “adorable” — unless you are describing her kitten. Condescending “compliments” are insulting. 
  11. Try to understand that not every woman has a need or even desire to be affirmed by random men. I know that men are often hurt when women — even complete strangers — don’t “appreciate” their compliments. But, except for the most insecure and desperate among us, we don’t need male validation from every Tom, Dick and Harry as much as some men seem to think we do. Having a guy who barely knows me pronounce his positive judgment on me doesn’t necessarily feel like a “compliment” as much as intrusive and nervy. His opinion of me doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to him; often I’d rather he have kept it to himself. So don’t assume women and girls will respond with grateful enthusiasm to your compliments, and try to understand if they act annoyed and put upon. Most of us have already had to endure too much of men judging us and it’s hard to be gracious about it. Plus, there can be a lot of anxiety there too, for good reason — a seemingly “harmless” compliment can suddenly go terribly, terribly bad. However, well-mannered, meaningful, succinct, specific, and appropriate compliments tend to be welcome by almost everyone, male or female.
  12. Avoid the “back-handed” compliment. This means you shouldn’t include any insult or sign of disrespect, no matter how cleverly worded, into your compliment. “You’re not like other girls” is not a compliment, nor is, “You think like a man”.
  13. If you mess up, apologize and drop it. Never berate a woman for not responding as you had hoped. The words “Can’t you take a compliment?” should never cross your lips.

Edited to add this:

14. Or maybe I should call this 1A. Consider the relationship before you address people. I realize that there are cultural differences regarding when terms of endearment are appropriate or not. But, it’s a safe bet that, if we’ve just met and have never been formally introduced, that it’s a bit premature in our “relationship” for us to be considering each other as “dear”, “honey”, and “sweetheart”. Perhaps we should reserve those “sweet nothings” until we get to know each other a bit better. Unless, of course, you’re just being an absent-minded mom of many kids, who doesn’t realize that she now calls everyone — her kids, her husband, the dog, the cat, the mailman, and her pastor — “sweetie” or “honey”…either that or something that sounds like, “Math-Mi-I-Ben-Dan-Jesse…oh, never mind!”