Where is the Repentance?

image credit: iStock

image credit: iStock

“When someone says they’re sorry but they don’t back their words up with real and lasting changes in their behaviors, sorry becomes meaningless. It is not enough. . . . It’s more often due to the pain they’re in or the pain they fear rather than any genuine remorse.” By saying: “I’m sorry” this person often thinks they are entitled to amnesty, forgiveness and full restoration of relationship—without having to make amends, without suffering consequences, or working to rebuild trust.

Tearful, weepy confessions of sin and wrongdoing have passed for true repentance on too many occasions, deceiving spouses, parents, friends, and even pastors and church leaders. And as Leslie Vernick noted in her July 22nd, 2014 newsletter, if the “sorry” one isn’t readily offered forgiveness, the hesitant one can be labeled as ungracious, ungodly, rebellious or hard-hearted. After their tears, the offender needs to be asked: What amends will you make? What will be the fruit of your repentance?

Even within one of the classic New Testament passages teaching forgiveness, the call for repentant fruit is evident. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus told his apostles: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Their response was “Increase our faith!” They felt Christ was asking for the impossible.

There is no limit to the extent of forgiveness you should offer to someone who sins against you; and it should be granted without hesitation. BUT such forgiveness should be preceded by repentance—by the offender turning around or retreating from their wrongdoing. So there is a two-fold process in true repentance—saying “I’m sorry” and turning away from the sinful behavior (repentance). Saying: “I’m sorry,” without turning from wrongdoing is pseudo-repentance.

In his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, John Calvin said of Luke 17:3-4 that “Christ does not order us to grant forgiveness, till the offender turns to us and give evidence of repentance.” In an aside Calvin added that in doing so, it appears that Christ is commanding us to shut our hearts against the obstinate (unrepentant) and refuse them pardon.

He thought there were two ways in which offenses could be forgiven.  The first was to give up the desire for revenge and not cease to love the one who did you an injury. You might even repay kindness for the injury. Yet you could entertain an unfavorable opinion of the person, as they deserve. “For when God commands us to wish well to our enemies, He does not therefore demand that we approve in them what He condemns, but only desires that our minds shall be purified from all hatred.”

The second kind of forgiving is when you receive a brother or sister into favor, being convinced that the remembrance of their offense is blocked out in the sight of God. “This doctrine is very necessary, because naturally almost all of us are peevish beyond measure; and Satan, under the pretence of severity, drives us to cruel rigour, so that wretched men, to whom pardon is refused, are swallowed up by grief and despair.” Here Calvin said a question arises: “As soon as a man by words makes profession of repentance, are we bound to believe him?”

First, the passage relates to the daily faults in which even the best people need forgiveness. What would be the consequence if at the second or third fall, the hope of forgiveness was cut off?

Second, Christ does not deprive believers from exercising judgment, so that they are to believe every slight expression of remorse. He only desires that we are merciful and willing to stretch out our hand to the offenders “provided there be evidence that they are sincerely dissatisfied with their sins. For repentance is a sacred thing and therefore needs careful examination.”

Third, someone could expose himself to suspicion regarding the sincerity of his repentance through light and unsteady behavior. We may grant pardon if he asks, “and yet may do so in such a manner as to watch over his conduct for the future.” This is done so that our forbearance and meekness in granting forgiveness may not become subject to his ridicule.

In summary, then, Calvin suggests that with the daily faults that we are all prone to exhibit, we should be ready and willing to grant forgiveness to others. But an offender should show signs of repentance before receiving forgiveness for other offenses. There should be evidence that they hate their sin. Finally, we are not ordered by Christ to forgive as soon as someone says they are “sorry.” Granting forgiveness can wait until the offender demonstrates their repentance.

The offender’s repentance is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” There can and should be a turning aside from the offense. There should be clear evidence that they are repentant. And if the person is unrepentant, we can refuse to offer this second kind of forgiving.

Even with sincere repentance there may be some failures by the offender. The one who was sinned against needs to realize this and not too quickly judge the offender unrepentant and refuse forgiveness—provided there is evidence of they are “sincerely dissatisfied with their sins.”

We do not have to believe every slight expression of remorse. We can offer forgiveness in a way that includes some accountability, some watchfulness over the offender’s behavior in the future.

We are not required to then become friendly with an offender when offering them forgiveness. We should surrender our desire for revenge, perhaps even repay kindness for the injury. Here God wants us to be free of all hatred. Yet we may still reserve an undesirable opinion of the offender; they may still be an enemy even after receiving forgiveness from us.

Do you think John Calvin’s suggestions could alleviate pseudo-repentance if they were applied more readily?


Sometimes I Hate Marital Counseling

There are times when I really hate doing marital counseling. Sometimes it feels like I am watching a gun fight. Other times I feel like a dentist, trying to pull impacted wisdom teeth. Then there is the couple that waits until their marriage is on life support before seeking help.

A female friend once told me about a twenty-something niece of hers who was undecided about accepting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. They were both Christians. They loved each other and the woman did want to marry him, but she was afraid. She was afraid their marriage would turn out like her parents.

Every Sunday her family would go to church together. When they returned home, her parents resumed living separate lives under the same roof. Whatever were the problems in the relationship, her parents had long ago stopped trying to resolve them, stopped trying to nourish and cherish each other.

Too few Christian couples in trouble seek to become an Ephesians five example of Christ and the church.  Once a woman asked me,“ What does that look like?” I told her to study what Paul said in Ephesians four and the first part of chapter five about how Christians are to live as one body. An Ephesians five marriage looks like a husband and wife trying to jointly “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Eph 4:1) Often when counseling Christian couples I see exactly the opposite of this.

For several years now I’ve used Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Relationship when working with couples in crisis. She has a copy of the “Emotionally Destructive Relationship Test” from the book available on her website that I’ve found very helpful. This test is designed to look at multiple relationships—marriages, parent-child, siblings, friends.

She has also written The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, specifically for wives in controlling, destructive, abusive marriages. As she said in her Introduction, there are many good books about how to be godly wife or how to build a successful and happy marriage. “There aren’t many books written on how to wisely deal with a destructive and abusive marriage.” In my opinion, this is the best.

There is an Emotionally Destructive Marriage Test to help the reader evaluate whether or not she is in an emotionally destructive marriage. She helps wives see their marriage clearly. She challenges them to accept that change begins with them. Building four CORE strengths is the heart of that change, “with God at the center and with his help.” Another helpful assessment tool is “Sixteen Traits of a Healthy Marriage” to see whether a marriage is relatively healthy, even if it is disappointing.

Leslie also suggested to her readers how to initiate change in their marriages. In this section she gave advice on how to Learn to Speak up in Love, to Stand Up Against the Destruction; what to do When There is No Obvious Change. She then described some Necessary Changes for a Marriage to Heal and gave counsel on Restoring the Destructive Marriage. Each of these topics had it’s own chapter.

Her website also has a blog where she gives practical, Biblical advice for women in destructive marriages. There is an active blogging community where these women can “receive prayer, support, encouragement and wisdom” in the midst of their relationship struggles.

There are increasingly times that I really enjoy doing marriage counseling. Sometimes it feels like I am a coach to a dancing couple striving to get their routine just right. These are couples that truly want to become the husband and wife that God has called them to be. Here it is a privilege and a joy to be part of the process. I find that Leslie Vernick’s books and material are an integral part of that process.

Do you know someone who may be in an emotionally destructive marriage?