“Even now, declares the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” Joel 2:12-13
“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” Rembrandt, 1663-1665
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.
15When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. 18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen. 50.15-21)
Many of us know the story of Joseph and his dysfunctional family (Genesis 25 – 50). His father Jacob was a master deceiver (from birth!), and played favorites with his wives and his sons, leading to jealousy, hatred, talk of murder, and finally the brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery. We delight in God’s presence with Joseph, giving him success even in the midst of unfair setbacks in Potiphar’s household and in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Joseph’s noble character is a model for us to follow. And how delightful it is when Joseph is elevated to second-in-command in Egypt, giving glory to God! We are amazed and thrilled at the poetic justice as the brothers come to Egypt and bow before Joseph (not recognizing him) in fulfillment of Joseph’s teenage dream some 13 or so years earlier.
Recently I led a Bible study which focused on a different aspect of this story—the issue of forgiveness and freedom from the brothers’ perspective. The words that stood out to me are in Gen. 50:17: “When their message came to him, Joseph wept.” Why is he weeping? Shouldn’t he be glad his brothers are still afraid he will punish them for their sins against him? After all, they treated him terribly and he suffered many years.
I marvel at Joseph’s faith and character. God shaped and molded him through the years of suffering and character-building to bring him to a place of great power, authority, and wealth. Yet Joseph saw all this as God’s plan to save his people (50:20). He wept to hear his brothers acknowledge their sin (42:24), he wept to see his brother Benjamin (43:30), and he wept when he was reunited with his brothers (45:14-15). Joseph longed for reconciliation with his family. His forgiveness is clearly seen as he welcomed them and provided for all their needs in Egypt.
For 17 years Jacob and his family lived in Egypt, prospering under the care of Joseph. The brothers, however, are still in bondage to guilt. When Jacob dies, they again fear that Joseph will punish them. How sad for Joseph! He weeps because after 17 years they still do not trust his mercy and forgiveness. They do not live in the freedom of reconciliation that flows from forgiveness. They cling to their guilt and fear of punishment.
I wonder sometimes how often God weeps when I confess my sins, receive his forgiveness, and then continue to live in my guilt as if I must pay him back for my sins, waiting for him to punish me in some way. That’s not freedom! In 2 Corinthians 5:15-6:2 St. Paul reminds us that Christ died for us and he implores us to be reconciled to God and “not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Cor. 6:2). No wonder Joseph wept! His arms were opened wide to forgive and receive his brothers, yet they refused to live in the freedom and reconciliation he offered them.
Isn’t that the picture of Christ? He was despised and rejected, suffered horribly, and was exalted to power by God his Father. We come before him, bowing in humility, confessing our sin. He graciously forgives and invites us into relationship with him—he longs for closeness with us. And how often do we say thanks for the forgiveness, but I’m not sure you could really want to be close to me, after all, I’m a pretty bad sinner. And how he must weep!
Lord Jesus, may I not receive your grace in vain. Purge me of my sin and guilt, and restore to me the joy of my salvation, that I may live in the freedom of your love and mercy. In You I am a new creation, cleansed and reconciled! Amen!
Guest Writer: Diane Bahn is a pastor’s wife in Texas and serves as the Director of the Partner (wives) Program of the Pastoral Leadership Institute (PLI).