Real Repentance

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“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

If a spouse has been unfaithful; if a spouse is “messing around” with meth and “sort of” promising to never touch it again, what is a faithful spouse supposed to do? How can a husband or wife know if their spouse has entered into real, biblical repentance?

It’s an important question. Counselors tell us that at crisis points in marriage, a spouse may make a few small changes in the right direction only until the sense of crisis passes. Then he/she goes right back to the offending behavior.

This is flat-out abusive. When you know that what you’re doing is frustrating your spouse or even making him/her miserable and you do just enough to keep the platform of living together alive so that you can ultimately continue to make him/her miserable, that’s spiritually sick. It’s malicious. “I’m not going to let you go but I’m also not going to change.” I can’t say this strongly enough: it is a spiritual disorder to treat anyone, much less your spouse, this way. This is about you and God before it is about you and your spouse. If this is you, it is a state of rebellion against God and He is simply using your spouse to help you see what you’ve become.

This is a high call for biblical counselors who must be sophisticated enough to bring an end to the evil (change needs to happen) rather than unwittingly offer a platform for the evil to continue (just try to do a little bit better so your spouse isn’t quite so angry and won’t separate from you).

If I resent my spouse for calling me to become more like Christ then ultimately who I really resent is Christ; it means in my heart of hearts I actually wish He were different, or that He didn’t call me to become like Him.  This attitude needs to be confronted, not coddled.

If a marriage is going to be rebuilt after trust has been repeatedly broken, it has to be rebuilt on real repentance. The offending spouse has to demonstrate their horror at what they’ve done by going full speed in the opposite direction, not by taking a three-degree turn simply to show a tiny bit of “progress.”

This is true for major and minor issues, to a different degree. If my issue is being chronically late and I’m truly repentant, I start showing up early. If the issue is saying hurtful things, it’s not “repentance” to say hurtful things a little less often. Real repentance is stopping abusive language completely and intentionally saying kind, encouraging and praiseworthy things. If the issue is a lack of employment, I don’t settle for a part-time job. I work the part-time job and then spend just as many hours looking for a full-time job.

Real repentance reveals a real heart transformation; our spouse can see the change not just hear us say we intend to change.  

Real repentance continues with the offending spouse owning his/her faults. It’s common for me to see a spouse who has acted deplorably start to resent having the spotlight put on him or her and thus respond by saying, “You know, he/she isn’t perfect either.”

The sarcastic part of me wants to say, “Really? I thought they were sinless. Well, this changes everything. We’ll forget about your deplorable wickedness until we get this person you’re married to to be a little more patient when you mess up.”

If I make a sinless spouse the requirement of repenting then I’m never going to have to repent and the marriage is going to stay miserable. Avoiding changing a grave failing because your spouse has a minor one is an arrogant spiritual trick that some spouses use to avoid having to change. It is a great offense against love.

A third mark of real repentance is that a spouse will welcome, without resentment, increased accountability. If you say you’re not looking at porn or contacting a previous flirtation (or worse), then you shouldn’t have any problem letting your spouse pick up your phone or IPad and scrolling through the messages or history. There is no good reason I would care if my wife looks at every app on my phone. If she finds out I ordered her a surprise birthday present, that’s on her. There is no good reason I should be afraid if she checks out where I’ve been on Amazon or Netflix or surfing the web. Why would I care unless there was something I didn’t want her to see? And why wouldn’t I want her to see it unless I shouldn’t have been doing it to begin with?

Secrecy is hiding and by definition the opposite of intimacy. Some people think they can have their “sin on the side” and their spouse’s intimate affections, but that’s a lie. Repentance is, at root, a choice: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” You’re calling your spouse to make up his or her mind: do they want to be married, or not? You’re not interested in a quasi-marriage where they are half single and half spouse. You will be all-in with them, responding with grace, forgiveness and generosity, but they have to accept the main course of marriage before they get to enjoy the desserts.

One husband sinned greatly with several extramarital affairs. The wife had full biblical “permission” to leave him; no pastor I know would have objected. But she thought she saw a real change for the first time so they went to a place that specializes in sexual addiction. The counselor set out the conditions: “Your wife is going to write down thirty questions that she has always wanted to ask you. You’re going to be hooked up to a lie detector and a detective is going to monitor every answer. She’s finally going to get all her answers, and you’ll submit to this lie detector test every four months for the next two years. And by the way—one more act of unfaithfulness and she is going to divorce you.”

The husband agreed and through much counseling and confession their marriage was restored. At the end of two years the marriage had become so sweet that the wife told her husband, “You don’t have to take the lie detector tests anymore” but the husband said, “Yes, I do.”

You see, that’s real repentance. That’s a man who realizes the harm he has done and the harm he is capable of doing again so he welcomes accountability. His desire to stop hurting his wife is greater than his desire to “enjoy” the sin that wounds her. He knows the latter desire is not yet nonexistent so he takes concrete steps to guard himself and ultimately protect his wife from further pain.

Contrast this with a husband who had “dabbled” in meth. He and his wife have two small children. When his wife said it wasn’t safe for her and the children to share the same house with a meth addict, but she was willing to work with him if he would enter recovery, he said he was done with meth, recovery wasn’t necessary, and he refused to consider any drug tests. That’s not repentance. Lying and addiction are virtual synonyms. A repentant addict knows this and admits it and sees the tests as necessary steps for healing.

One husband who got it had displayed controlling behavior over his wife until a separation woke him up. I told him he had to be more concerned for his wife’s welfare than he was over her return. “If you truly love her, you shouldn’t want her to return until you know she won’t be hurt by this behavior anymore.” He later told me that sentence hit him like a sledgehammer and he kept repeating it to himself until it was true. He really didn’t want his wife to agree to live together anymore until he was certain there had been a heart change sufficient enough to protect her from his former behavior. Today they are back together and enjoying the best season of their marriage to date. Why? Real repentance ushered in grace, mercy, and healing.

If you are the offending spouse and your spouse is willing to hang with you, you owe him/her real repentance. Not a minor change that keeps them silent for a few more months, but an admission of guilt, a major overhaul of behavior, concrete accountability to maintain the change and a heart transformation so complete that you don’t even want to get back together until you are relatively certain that, under the grace of God, your behavior won’t make your spouse miserable any more. Anything less is not real repentance.

If your spouse is on the treadmill of saying-I’m-sorry-but-never-changing you can say, with some integrity, “Being sorry isn’t about what you say or even about how you feel. Biblically, it’s ultimately about what you do.”

 

Reposted with permission from Gary Thomas, 2017.