Monday, November 19, 2012

Differentiating Genuine Repentance from the Feigned Counterfeit of the Smug and Entitled

 It's scary, telling another person
“This is who I am. This is what I want.”

Scarier still is standing by the truth about ourselves – our integrity –
as we must when we give the other person
a choice to accept or not accept our decisions and differences. . .

But remember we're asking for something that is absolutely reasonable:
We want the other person 
to stop manipulating us.
Susan Forward,

In considering the act of repentance, we've already noted that though repentance must always be followed with forgiveness, when the offending party uses repentance as “an occasion to the flesh” (entitlement to continue selfishly hurting others), it causes the wounded party to suffer additional injustice and harm. We are also required to confront those who have harmed us.

In the chronic situations of offense in my own life, I felt like those who asked me to accept repentance in word only which was not followed up with congruent actions that lived out that contrition over the harm I suffered, I believed that the person asked me to honor them more than I honored God. This becomes a form of idolatry. I was created in God's Image, and with that comes a responsibility to honor and care for my own reasonable needs for safety and peace. I believe that when we are asked to suffer chronic injustice, we dishonor ourselves and that responsibility that we have to care for ourselves lovingly. True repentance with contrition which is followed by action brings honor not only to the offended but also honors God as well as justice. The reverse is also true: those who disregard justice show great dishonor to others, God, and that which is good, making a mockery of them all.  By accepting disingenuous repentance as grounds for exoneration or reconciliation, we risk enabling those in this mockery.

In this part of the journey, we determine what we are willing to risk by discerning the sincerity of the person who offers repents for the wrongs they've done.  If we determine that our offender's repentance is disingenuous, we have to move into a different type of path of healing in forgiveness.  Here we begin the careful soul searching, considering whether we want to cancel the debt, release the person and the debt to God as an act of obedience to prevent bitterness in our hearts, and/or possibly break off from further contact with this person to prevent further strife.

Though we are called to be as innocent as doves, we are also required to exercise sound wisdom and judgment as we relate to others with the shrewdness of the serpent, our adversary. The Proverbs alone offer us so many examples of this type of wisdom in our daily lives that we can barely note them all here. When making decisions about how to proceed with forgiveness into the Path of Healing, we must wisely discern our own needs as well as the sincerity of those who have repented to us. If we have lived under family dysfunction and if we are working through disagreements with those who continue to harm us, we must learn what genuine repentance looks like so that we can protect ourselves when we face those smug and entitled people who offer us less than what we as well as the Image of God in us deserves.

True Contrition Leading to Change

Contrition describes the remorse and regret that we feel for having done something wrong, and it should characterize all true repentance. A previous post also noted that the Hebrew term for repentance derives from words that define contrition. In Latin, the term means “crushed by guilt,” connoting a grinding process.

But Paul tells the Church at Corinth that godly repentance requires something more than just mere contrition, noting that our limited human regret falls short.  “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)  This single verse alone condemns those who offer empty lip service by repenting without changing their heart toward those whom they've offended, feeling regret for the hurt that they've caused them, continuing to repeat the same offenses, over and over. The Message Bible does a fine job explaining this godly repentance in this way:
I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss. Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets. 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, The Message
Fruit of Humility. In addition to heartfelt sorrow for what others have suffered that results in changes in our behavior, true repentance brings about other fruit in the life of the one who repents. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17). We will manifest the fruit of virtue and love when we find humility. Those who do not repent hold on to their pride, and they really don't regret their sin. Here is where the entitlement comes in. They lack fear of God and a true understanding of what their wrongdoing has done. Even with knowledge of their sin, they flatter themselves in their own minds and esteem of self. With this consideration, one might say that the degree to which a person hates the sin they committed, a manifestation of their fear of God, is a good monitor of the degree of their repentance.

Signs of Genuine Repentance

Pastor Steve Cornell who writes extensively on the subject of forgiveness at his blog, Wisdom For Life, offers us a picture of what true repentance in action looks like:
The offender:
  1. Accepts full responsibility for his or her actions. (Instead of: “Since you think I’ve done something wrong…” or “If have done anything to offend you…”).
  2. Welcomes accountability.
  3. Does not continue in the hurtful behavior or anything associated with it.
  4. Does not have a defensive attitude about his or her being in the wrong.
  5. Does not have a light attitude toward his or her hurtful behavior.
  6. Does not resent doubts about his or her sincerity – nor the need to demonstrate sincerity — especially in cases involving repeated offenses.
  7. Makes restitution where necessary.

In this MUST READ post, Cornell goes on to list common lines that the unrepentant offering lip service can give to manipulate those they've wronged.

We can also consider these characteristics of true repentance when we approach others whom we've offended. We are all human and are always offending one another on some level. We are always learning more about how to grow in righteousness and love, and we learn more about the depths of the state of our hearts. Conflict and offense reveal these motives and attitudes to us, both in ourselves and others. As in the prior post, I would again like to stress the importance of patience in the process, because repentance is a journey of its own. We must be patient when those we have offended express doubts about our sincerity, for this is wisdom at work as their heart changes and responds. As Cornell points out for us, this is especially important in situations where we have been offended and hurt many times over. Perhaps these considerations are most helpful to us when addressing chronic offenses in dysfunctional, shame-based relationships.

Before Proceeding on to Reconciliation

Though we must discern how serious people are with us when they repent after they've hurt us, these considerations do not give us license to deny forgiveness to anyone. The sincerity of someone's approach to repentance and the degree to which they live out the works of restoration helps us make decisions about whether we can move on to reconciliation, if it is appropriate. We may consider other alternatives which help us cope with repeated offenses, such as avoiding the offender or setting limits with them. These items will be topics of discussions in further posts.

Remember that forgiveness means making a choice to give up on your right to collect on a debt owed to you. Regardless of the sincerity of the offender's repentance or whether they even repent at all, it is still possible to move on to forgiveness by releasing the debt of restitution that they owe to you. In posts to come, we will examine ways in which we can move on to the next step in the process, regardless of the outcome within the relationship.

Additional Reading

Though discussed briefly in this previous post, the reader interested in this aspect of forgiveness with benefit from this discussion of Joseph and the wisdom he exercised when forgiving and eventually reconciling with his brothers.

Some often repent, yet never reform;
they resemble a man traveling in a dangerous path,
who frequently starts and stops, but never turns back
Bonnell Thornton

More to come on repentance,
justice versus mercy,
and pitfalls in the process of forgiveness.