How Do You Know When Someone is Truly Sorry?
I have been asked this question on many occasions–by a variety of people, too. For christians this can be incredibly confusing. We want to believe, accept, trust, etc. that the confessions heard couldn’t be anything other than authentic and enduring. It’s disappointing and crushing when the words “I’m sorry” recoil into a temporary change and then, a return to hurtful actions.
Dr. Dan Allender, a Christian counselor, educator and author, writes that repentance is
an about face movement from denial and rebellion to truth and surrender…it involves the response of humble hunger, bold movement, and wild celebration when faced with the reality of our fallen state and the grace of God…It is a shift in perspective as to where life is found…It is melting into the warm arms of God, received when it would be so understandable to be spurned. (Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart)
Repentance is admitting helplessness, There’s an energy there that desires to not make up, not take away, but to do whatever needs to be done to honor the wound, to have it healed and grow Penance presumes the ability to make amends on one’s own. Repentance softens the heart, while penance hardens it. (Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart)
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (Hosea 6:1-2)
They do not cry out to me from their hearts but wail upon their beds. (Hosea 7:14)
It’s not always easy to tell if someone is truly repentant. The apostle Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow, worldly sorrow that leads to death and godly sorrow that brings repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). As Christian counselors it is crucial that we learn to distinguish between the two especially when we are doing couples work.
Worldly sorrow is a self-focused sorrow. It may contain great emotion, tears, and apologies, but the grief expressed is for one’s self. The person mourns the consequences of his or her sin and what she has lost. This may be a marriage, a job, a reputation, friends and/or family, or can even be one’s own idea of who they thought they were. Here are some of the things we often hear a person say when they are sorrowing unto death.
- I can’t believe I did such a thing.
- Why is this happening to me?
- Please forgive me. – Implying, please don’t make me suffer the consequences of my sin.
- Why won’t he/she forgive me? (In other words, why can’t reconciliation be easy and quick?)
- I’m so sorry (sad).
- I’m a horrible person.
- I wish I were dead.
- I hate myself.
Judas is a good example of this type of sorrow (Matthew 27:3-5). After he betrayed Christ, he was seized with remorse yet it did not lead to godly repentance, but self-hatred and suicide.
It is natural that we feel compassion for the person suffering such emotional and spiritual pain. However, it’s crucial that we not confuse this kind of sorrow with the kind that leads to biblical repentance, especially when we are working with both the sorrowing sinner and the one who has been sinned against.
Godly sorrow demonstrates grief over one’s sinfulness toward God as well as the pain it has caused others. John the Baptist said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Below are eight things I have found that demonstrate those fruits of genuine repentance.
- Accepts full responsibility for actions and attitudes, doesn’t blame others or situations.
- Acknowledges sinfulness (instead of “I can’t believe I could do such a thing”).
- Recognizes the effects of actions on others and shows empathy for the pain he/she’s caused.
- Able to identify brokenness in detail such as abusive tactics, attitudes of entitlement, and/or areas of chronic deceit.
- Accepts consequences without demands or conditions.
- Makes amends for damages.
- Is willing to make consistent changes over the long term such as new behaviors and attitudes characteristic of healthy relationships.
- Is willing to be accountable and if needed, long term.
In my work with couples who have experienced grievous sin, I have found that it is not sin that ends most relationships. All couples experience sin. Rather, it is our blindness and refusal to acknowledge our sin and repent that makes reconciliation and healing impossible.