This video segment is one of six lessons in the “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication” seminar.
The GCM series are marriage preparation and marriage enrichment level resources. If your marriage needs restoration level care consider one of the other options available at summitchurch.com/counseling, or visit bradhambrick.com/findacounselor for help finding a counselor near you.
If you are interested in the pre-marital mentoring program built around these materials, you can find everything you need at www.bradhambrick.com/gcm.
NOTE: Many people have asked how they can get a copy of the GCM seminar notebooks. You can request a copy from Summit’s admin over counseling at firstname.lastname@example.org (please note this is an administrative account; no individual or family counsel is provided through e-mail).
If we want a healthy marriage, we must begin to view repentance as a skill to master rather than inconvenience to avoid. Any marriage material that does not teach on repentance as a vital part of maintaining unity is dangerously naïve about the human condition.
You need to be able to read this introduction without a sense of dread. Repentance done well is incredibly romantic because it says, “I value our marriage more than my pride.” Moments of sacrifice are always powerfully bonding. When we sacrifice our pride through repentance it bonds us with the one to whom we are repenting. Of all the investments you can make in your marriage, this will likely be the most impactful.Repentance done well is incredibly romantic because it says, “I value our marriage more than my pride.” Click To Tweet
What is Repentance?
Too often, we define repentance as “feeling bad about what we did.” This definition reduces repentance to sulking and an emotional time out. Ken Sande in Peacemaking for Families describes seven elements of robust repentance.
- Address Everyone Involved. If someone was affected by your sin, they should hear your repentance. When you fail to seek forgiveness you leave that person believing you think your actions were acceptable.
Think of relationships scarred by sin as rooms of your home infected by termites. 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.
- Avoid If, But, and Maybe. Our first tendency in repentance is to soften what we admit. “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.
Repentance is about more than acknowledging sub-optimal behaviors. Repentance is an admission that I misrepresented the character of the God whose name I bear as a Christian (i.e., literally “little Christ” when this term was coined in Acts 11:26).
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 that hurt them without it feeling like they are “piling on” to what we have already said ― “I know.”
- Admit Specifically. One goal of repentance (in the name of “loving your 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 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.
- 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. It is an exercise in other-mindedness. Resistance to expressing empathy reveals the same self-centeredness that made our sin seem rational in the moment.
Empathy is post-listening. If effective listening is entering someone’s world as they talk, then confessional-empathy is entering their world after we’ve hurt them. Unless we do acknowledge their hurt, then we give no assurance that will give proper weight to avoiding the creation of similar pain in the future.
- Accept the Consequence. Repentance is not a plea-bargain or negotiation. 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 the offending person’s place to define what is punitive, disciplinary, or trust-building.
- 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.”
Involve others, because change happens in community. Do not let your spouse be the only person who “holds you accountable.” This sets up a parenting relationship in the marriage.
- 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.
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 for you to come to repentance. It is hypocritical to expect someone else to process their suffering (your sin against them) faster than you turned from your sin.As a general rule to promote humility and patience, allow at least as much time for forgiveness as it took for you to come to repentance. Click To Tweet
A Case Study
Let’s give two examples of repentance for the same event. We will use the common example of being late for church.
[Spoken privately to spouse] “I’m sorry if I lost my cool. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. But I don’t know what else to do when you guys make us late. I’ll try to do better.”Grade: _____
[Spoken to spouse and children] “It was wrong for me to raise my voice, call you guys lazy, question your commitment to God, and ask a bunch of rhetorical questions that couldn’t be answered just to make you feel bad about being late.
Being on time is important to me and in this case too important. I care about what people think of me and was more concerned about walking into church late than loving my family well. I need to be careful not to judge and punish you guys based upon what is important to me.
I can see how my impatience can make going to church a stressful time and harder to focus on God.
I’d like for us to talk later about how we can manage our time getting ready for church better, but right now I would ask for your forgiveness. I want to show you that being on time is not more important than my family so we can have conversations about getting ready for church without a sense of fear or tension.”
What Are the Marks of Genuine Repentance?
Chances are most of us are really challenged when we realize what genuine repentance looks like. Quick “I’m-sorry-that’s-okay” exchanges now seem embarrassingly thin. We are still faced with the challenge of discerning what makes for realistic expectations after repentance. Repentance is not something we complete. It doesn’t make us non-sinners who will never sin in the same way again. But if the “fruit of repentance” (Matt. 3:8) doesn’t mean “finished repenting” what does it mean?
We will look at five indicators of genuine repentance. These are discussed to give you a more robust understanding of “progress” than merely counting the number of days since you last needed to repent.
- Decrease in Frequency of Sin: Progress means that we should sin less. After we repent, there should be noticeable and quantifiable decreases in the frequency of that sin. This is why healthy repentance cannot be exclusively negative (what I should not have done), but must have a future positive element (what should replace my sinful actions or words; Eph. 4:20-24).
Sin is like a fungus that grows best in the dark. Repentance not only exposes sin to the blood of Jesus for cleansing, but also exposes the sinner to the light of God’s Word and God’s people as a preventative measure against future sin.
- Repenting More Quickly: Progress means that we will deal with our sin differently when we do fall. A gospel-centered marriage will be marked by an ever-decreasing interval between sin and repentance.
- A Change in Battleground: Progress should mean that you see an advance in your battle against sin to its core fortress: from actions to thoughts/emotions and finally to heart commitments. True repentance means that we are no longer battling our spouse, but our sinful hearts. “We” get to be mutually excited as the battle against sin advances.
To help you gain a sense for what it looks like when the battleground changes, complete the chart below for the last three times you repented (or should have) to your spouse.
“Late for Church”
Actions / Words
Thoughts / Emotions
|“They don’t care”
Be on time
- Having a Greater Sense of Need for Christ’s Mercy and Grace: True repentance allows us to experience dependence without shame – humility. We realize that “doing better” is not primarily about “trying harder” or “learning more” but depending on God and moving towards those He has called us to love.
- Increase Honesty and Accountability: Repentance means that you do not need a “reason” to be honest and things do not have to be “that bad” in order for you to have accountability. It means that you realize Christian community is one of God’s primary means of preventing sin in the life of His people. Repenting for a consistent struggle only to your spouse will make your spouse start to feel like a parent.
When you realize that repentance is the road to the marriage you always wanted, you will escape the “we tried and things got better for while” marriage rut. When we resist repentance, we try to find the problem in the system (i.e., communication patterns, marital dynamics, etc…) instead of looking at the two people who created and perpetuated that system. Whatever we learn about the system will only teach us about the people who created it.
“I have a theory: Behind virtually every case of marital dissatisfaction lies unrepented sin. Couples don’t fall out of love so much as they fall out of repentance (p. 96).” Gary Thomas in Sacred Marriage
When we realize that repentance is a gift given by God to those He loves (2 Tim. 2:25), we will embrace repentance as an exercise that brings “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19-20) to those individuals and marriages who dare practice it.