Repentance is an essential part of the Christian life, relational health, and maintaining an accurate view of the world. Repentance is when we quit trying to make our dysfunction “work” and embrace the life-giving alternative to our sin that God offers.Repentance is when we quit trying to make our dysfunction 'work' and embrace the life-giving alternative to our sin that God offers. Click To Tweet
When we direct repentance towards a person we have offended we often call it an apology. For this reason, Christians should be better at apologizing than anyone else.
In the context of offense (when we are the offended party), it can be difficult to be objective about whether an apology is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, genuine or obligatory. Motives are subjective and rarely all good or all bad.
In this post, I pull from several previous posts and resources in order to try to identify the markers of a good (i.e., God-honoring) apology and markers of a a bad apology (i.e., one that fails to accomplish God’s redemptive agenda after an offense). I hope these help us repent well when are the offending party and discern wisely when we are the offended party in a conflict.
7 Marks of a Good Apology
Ken Sande in Peacemaking for Families, his excellent book on conflict resolution, describes seven elements of repentance (bold text only). This outline is developed in the order that words of repentance would typically be spoken in conversation. Explanations and applications will be provided for each point.
* This material is an abbreviated excerpt from the mentoring manual for the Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication seminar (unit 5), so while in places it has a marital focus it is applicable to any relational context.
1. Address Everyone Involved.
If someone was directly or indirectly affected by your sin or observed your sin, then you should seek their forgiveness. When you fail to seek forgiveness you leave that person believing you think your actions were acceptable to God (particularly damaging for children and others over whom you have leadership responsibilities). Our repentance is often used by God to awaken us to the far-reaching, unintended consequences of our sin.
Mentality: Think of relationships scarred by sin as rooms of your home infected by termites. Sin is a destructive force that enjoys doing residual damage until is it exterminated by repentance and forgiveness. There is no such thing as an “insignificant termite” in your home. Likewise, there is no such thing as an “insignificant effect of sin” in a relationship.
2. Avoid If, But, and Maybe.
Our first tendency in repentance is to soften what we admit. Words like if, but, and maybe have no place in repentance. “If” calls into question whether what you did was really wrong. “But” transforms repentance into accusation. “Maybe” indicates you are not convinced your actions were wrong and invites a conversation (or debate) that is likely to go badly and, regardless, is not repentance.
Acknowledge you violated God‘s character. Repentance is about more than acknowledging sub-optimal behaviors. It is an admission that I misrepresented the character of the God whose name I bear when I call myself a Christian (i.e., literally “little Christ” when the title was first given in Acts 11:26). When we seek forgiveness we are saying, “I failed in my life purpose to be ‘an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)’ and I want clarify what I distorted to you.”
Do not use verbs of completion (i.e., I know…) but verbs ending in “-ing” (i.e., I am learning…). Avoiding verbs of completion allows the other person to talk about other aspects of our offense without it feeling like they are “piling on” to what we have already said ― “I know.”
3. Admit Specifically.
One goal of repentance (in the name of “loving our neighbor as yourself”) is to make forgiveness as easy as possible (which is never easy). We can do this by being detailed in our confession. Generic confession is often a sign of insincerity. “We all know what happened,” is no excuse for brevity. Hearing that you can be specific without falling into blame-shifting or self-pity is an important indicator that you are a “safe” person and that restoration is wise.
If making a list of the specific ways that you have offended someone in preparation for confession causes you to feel intense shame, then you need to make sure that you have repented to God first and embraced His forgiveness. Your spouse’s forgiveness cannot be an emotional replacement for God’s. When shame drives confession, your emotions of contrition will take center stage and overpower your request for forgiveness.
4. Apologize (Acknowledge the Hurt).
Sin has consequences; both intentional and unintentional. Repentance expresses empathy and often takes responsibility for the dominoes that fall as a result of our sin. This is not groveling or penance (both of which are emotionally manipulative). It is an exercise in other-mindedness. Resistance to expressing empathy reveals that the same self-centeredness that made our sin seem rationale in the moment.
Reflection Questions: How did my sin affect my spouse (personally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, professionally, etc…)? What messages did my sin send? What impact did the delay between my sin and my repentance have? What life pattern did my sin continue?
Remember, your goal in repentance is an effort to represent God more accurately to the person you have offended. God is compassionate and understanding to our hurts (Psalm 56:8). If our confession is rooted in a desire to make God known in each moment, then our confession will include evidence that we have reflected on the impact of our sin.
5. Accept the Consequence.
Repentance is not a plea-bargain or negotiation. Repentance is not a time when we establish the “acceptable terms” for our sin. If our repentance and confession are sincere, then the need for consequences-as-punishment (to open blind eyes and soften a hard heart) is absent. However, consequences can still play a disciplinary role (reinforcing life lessons and solidifying prevention measures) and a trust-building role (providing tangible fruit to the otherwise unverifiable desire to change). It is acceptable, and often wise, for the forgiving person to request consequences of these latter kinds. However, it is not your place to define what is punitive, disciplinary, or trust-building.
Begin by stating the obvious. If there are clear changes you need to make, state them in your repentance. Do not phrase them as, “I will do [blank] for you,” as if these actions were a favor or concession, or “If you insist, I will [blank],” portraying change as punishment. It is more in keeping with repentance to say, “Because I see my need to change, I will [blank].”
End by asking an open ended question. Honest questions are a sign of humility. They reveal that we are not presenting a contract or deal, but that we are seeking to be restored to a person. A simple, “Are there other ways I can show you the sincerity of my desire to change or make you feel honored?” would suffice.
6. Alter Your Behavior.
The repentant conversation is not the culmination of the journey. It is merely the drawing of the map and acknowledgement that the map is needed. If we stop at verbal repentance our lack of effort gives the person reason to say, “You didn‘t really mean what you said.”
Read Luke 14:28-33. Part of embracing the Gospel is counting the cost of following God and embracing the sacrifice. Obviously, it‘s worth it. We give up our life of sin and its misery and we gain a life being transformed to what God intended and Heaven. But it feels painful and often we want to back out because of our doubt. The same is true with repentance, because it is rooted in the Gospel paradigm of dying to self to find life.
7. Ask for Forgiveness & Allow Time.
“I‘m sorry” is not the same thing as asking for forgiveness. “I‘m sorry” is an appropriate statement after a mistake. “Will you forgive me?” is the appropriate statement when we have sinned against another person.
Remember, forgiveness is commanded by God, but Scripture never calls on the confessing party to be the one who reminds others of this command or to insist that it be obeyed. As a general rule to promote humility and patience, allow at least as much time for forgiveness as it took you to come to repentance. It is hypocritical to expect someone else to process suffering (your sin against them) faster than you changed your sin.
8 Marks of a Bad Apology
This material was originally posted as a blog at the Biblical Counseling Coalition site.
The recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. The difficulty is in discerning disingenuous repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught, or a tactic to gain relational leverage.
In this post, I hope to accomplish two things. First, I will attempt to clarify two common misperceptions about manipulation. Second, I will discuss a series of phrases commonly used in repentance which can be red flags that the remorse being expressed will not lead to healthy relational restoration.
Manipulation is about motive (why or how something is done) more than method (what is said or done). There is no way to make a list of “manipulative phrases.” Every phrase listed below has a context in which it could be legitimate and appropriate. Manipulation is about motive (resisting change, minimizing responsibility, blame-shifting, etc…) and is most effective (in a negative sense of “effectiveness”) when that phrase/action used seems legitimate.
Implication – The explanation after each phrase below will be important to understand. If the description of how each phrase can be a part of manipulative repentance does not fit a given use of that phrase, it should not be considered manipulative.
Manipulation does not require “malice aforethought” or intellectual cunning. From my experience in counseling, most people who are using remorse to gain an advantage or avoid responsibility are not aware, in the moment, of what they’re doing. They just want to escape the discomfort of the moment. This driving desire (i.e., to escape) shapes the way they define words and frame questions.
In reality, that is what manipulation is: manipulation is defining words and framing questions (by verbiage or emotions) in such a way that makes a healthy response from the other person seem selfish, mean, or unreasonable.
1. “I know I’m not perfect.”
Your expectations that I responded decently are unreasonable. You are holding me to a perfectionistic standard. In order to avoid being confronted by you, I would have to be perfect. You should feel bad for being judgmental and harsh instead of asking me to seek restoration for what I did.
2. “I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not.”
You knew who I was when we started this relationship so you are being unfair by expecting me to be decent. This confuses genuineness with righteousness; authenticity with holiness. By this standard, someone could be consistently hurtful and we would still be to blame for their sin because we chose to be in relationship with them.
3. “You are bringing up stuff from the past.”
We can only talk about events, not patterns of behaviors. Often this impasse is reached when the individual repenting is unwilling to see that the event (for instance, intoxication or belligerence) in question was part of a larger pattern (i.e., addiction or abusive speech). If there is a pattern of behavior and this pattern goes unacknowledged, then the level of efforts towards change will be inadequate to produce the necessary change.
4. “You know I am not the kind of person who would do that… that is not what I meant.”
Your experience of me is not an accurate depiction of reality. My self-perception and intentions are truer than your experience. These phrases leave the person repenting in charge of defining the event for which forgiveness is being sought. The intent /self-perception of the sinner is being imposed as a limit on the pain of the one sinned against. The result is that the offended person has less voice in describing their pain. The offending person remains in charge of the narrative.
5. “I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me? What more can I do?”
If anything more than my words (i.e., “I’m sorry”) are required in response to my actions, then you are being unforgiving, mean, weak, or hyper-emotional. Also, this response often implies that an apology should be met with an immediate sense of trust and equanimity in the relationship. Any lingering sense of mistrust by the offended person is then labeled as an unreasonable and ungodly form of punishment.
6. More use of first person pronouns (i.e., I, me, my) than second person pronouns (i.e., you, your).
While this is not a specific phrase, the excessive use of self-centered pronouns may reveal that the person repenting is focusing on their personal experience of the offense more than the impact on the person they hurt or offended. In this way, the person repenting is remaining the main character in their repentance as much as they were in their sin.
Note: First person pronouns should be used in the active / ownership part of repentance. However, in the description of the impact and aftermath of our sin, healthy repentance focuses more on the disruption we caused in the other person’s life.
7. “There are a lot of people / couples who have it much worse than you / we do.”
You should feel bad for complaining when the situation was not as bad as it could have been. This equates “could have been worse” with “not bad enough to mention.” It also portrays suffering as a competitive sport in which only those who suffer the worst merit sympathy for their hardship.
This phrase often comes towards the end of an unhealthy repentance conversation. Early in the conversation the repenting person minimizes or blame-shifts. When the offended party tries to clarify the degree of hurt, this is viewed as exaggeration. This perception of exaggeration leads the repenting person to use the logic of “this situation is not as bad as [more exaggerative situation].”
8. “I promise I will do better (without agreement about the problem or concrete examples)”
Even though I minimize and disagree with you about the past and present, you should trust what I mean when I say “better” about the future. Commitments to change are not bad, although these commitments should usually have more humility than an absolute promise. However, when commitments to do “better” are made during a disagreement about the nature of the offense, these commitments become a way to shut down communication. Again, if you don’t accept my promise, you’re being mean, unforgiving, or unreasonable.
Remember most expressions of manipulation are unintentional (this does not reduce culpability). Many people are unskilled at difficult communication and become unduly shaped by their own interests when they should be owning their sin.
Frequently, I have found that when a counselor can articulate the unhealthy dynamic that exists in an attempt to repent, the offending person can see the coerciveness of their attempt at reconciliation. Usually (if it’s in marriage counseling), the couple will say, “Yikes, we do this a lot. We knew it wasn’t working but we couldn’t figure out why.”
This leads to a fruitful conversation about why their past efforts at restoring conflict through the biblical process of repentance and forgiveness had been unsuccessful (or, only intermittently effective).
In other cases, where the offending spouse is more committed to their self-centeredness, these explanations are rejected as unreasonable. In these instances, helping the offended individual / spouse remain open to the possibility of a more fully restored relationship without acquiescing to the manipulative style of communication becomes the focus of counseling (example of this kind of approach here).