(This is the eighth entry of a series on forgiveness. Repentance.)
HONESTY. Forgiveness is honest, severely honest. None of us want to be on the other side of forgiveness. We do not want to be the target of the severe honesty with which forgiveness comes. The honesty we must face when we are the guilty party, the one who has offended, who has hurt another by our words and/or actions, is an honesty from which we seek to hide. When confronted with a wrong, a sin, we have committed against another what do we humans typically do? Immediately we come to our own defense. We find excuses. We push back, certainly the offended person must share the blame if not the whole blame. Or we simply deny any wrong doing, even if we know we are in the wrong. When confronted with the honesty which is essential to the dynamic of forgiveness we respond with self-defense and self-preservation.
The honesty of forgiveness calls the guilty to repentance. Repentance is an old biblical and religious word which we do not use much in everyday speech. Literally it means to turn around, to go in the opposite direction, to do an about face. The idea is a change of heart and a change of behavior. A key text in helping me to understand the dynamic of repentance is Psalm 51. The heading of this psalm describes it as a psalm of David, King of Israel. It was written when the prophet Nathan came to David and confronted him with the adultery he committed with Bathsheba. David had tried to hide his sin from others, from himself, and from God.1 Confronted with his sin David wrote this song of confession and prayer for forgiveness. David’s words are addressed to God and concern his relationship with God. What is learned in this psalm gives us insight into the dynamic of repentance both toward God and toward the person we have offended and wronged.
GIFT. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2). Confronted with the reality of his sin and guilt, David does the only thing he can do. David pleads for forgiveness from God. David asks for forgiveness. He does not demand he be forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift of mercy and grace. When approaching a person we have wronged we have no right to demand forgiveness. Note also David acknowledges his guilt. Being on the other side of forgiveness obligates us to acknowledge our guilt, to accept responsibility for what we did.
GOD. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David used Bathsheba to satisfy his own desires. He disregarded her person and well-being, in both the adultery and in the killing of her husband Uriah. What especially brings David to his knees is his realization that in sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah he sinned against God. When David used and defiled Bathsheba he was using and defiling God. In taking Uriah’s wife and having Uriah killed, David robbed and killed God. David is not minimizing the wrong committed against Bathsheba and Uriah. Rather he recognizes what he did was all the more contemptible. We hear such deep pain, anguish, and guilt as David grieves sinning against God.
We cannot separate our relationship with people from our relationship with God. In our relationships with people we find our opportunity to serve and praise God or to despise and reject God. For the Christian who is on the other side of forgiveness this makes his willingness to come to the person he wronged in repentance and asking for forgiveness all the more important. Repentance to those we have wronged is taking seriously our relationship with God.
GUILT. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:3-4). We automatically want to shift to self-defense and self-preservation. We minimize the hurt done or find excuses or put blame on the person we hurt. When we are on the other side of forgiveness asking forgiveness, claiming to be sorry, and professing change, we must do so with acknowledgement of our guilt with no defending or excusing. “I did it. What I did was wrong.”
REMORSE. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). David’s remorse for his sin is heard throughout the psalm. Repentance not only says, “I am sorry.” Repentance feels sorrow with a genuineness of heart, a genuine sorrow, regret, and remorse for what we did or said. An offender can be sorry for a number of reasons. He can be sorry because he was caught. There is sorrow for the offender’s own loss and pain. “Look at all that I am suffering because of what I’ve done.” The offender is sometimes sorry because he failed to be what he wanted to be, which is a higher motivation of heart than the other reasons for sorrow. Yet with all of these the offender is responding out of self-centeredness. His concern is himself. There is little real concern for the hurt he caused another.
What I hear in David’s words is sorrow for the pain and grief he caused God. His sorrow and humility, his broken spirit and broken and contrite heart, came from his sorrow for offending and breaking the heart of God. Repentance is sorrow for the pain and loss your sin has caused in the other person’s heart and life. Repentance is being pained and grieved for the other person’s sake and for God’s sake.
RESPONSIBILITY. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). David gives no defense or excuse. We do not hear from David, “I’m sorry. But if you hadn’t…” or “I’m sorry, but you just have to understand that’s the way I am.” David accepted full responsibility for his actions. He didn’t blame Bathsheba or circumstances or God. There are no pleas of defense on the basis he was powerless to resist sin. David was ready to accept whatever consequences God judged to be worthy of such sin. Accepting full responsibility, accountability, and consequences, this is repentance. This is what we are to do when we are on the other side of forgiveness.
CHANGE. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Repentance is turning away from our offensive behavior. It is making a change, an about face, in attitude, in words, and in behavior. The prophet Ezekiel shares God’s call to and response to repentance. “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die” (Ezekiel 18:21). God forgives the repentant sinner who lives the change repentance brings. The apostle Paul called people to repentance. “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20).
Repentance goes beyond saying, “I’m sorry.” The offender who repents ceases the offensive behavior. She makes a commitment to ceasing such behavior and never doing it again.
RESTITUTION. “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts, you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness” (Psalm 51:6, 13-14). With repentance, with the desire to be forgiven, comes a willingness, a desire, to do whatever can be done to heal the damage done. Forgiveness is canceling the debt. Repentance involves making good on the debt as much as is possible.
“I began telling people that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God and do things to show they really had changed” (Acts 26:20 NCV). The change of heart and life is a change of attitude toward the person we wronged. It is the change of behavior toward that person. Unselfishly and humbly we commit to doing what is good and right toward the person we wronged. Doing whatever is needed, what is possible to do, we seek to heal, to undo, the hurt that was done.
TRUST. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). When the guilty come unselfishly and humbly, asking forgiveness, and repenting, he trusts the grace of the wounded. When the guilty repents he doesn’t turn the tables. “I said I was sorry. You better forgive me or God won’t forgive you.” When guilty we do not have the right to demand and cannot demand that the wounded put the offense aside, and go on as before the offense occurred. To be repentant is also to be patient with the person we wronged. We must patiently and compassionately seek to understand the depth of the hurt. The reality is that forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, takes time. The less serious the offense the less time forgiveness will likely take. The more serious the offense the more time forgiveness and reconciliation (if it is possible) will likely take. A repentant heart is ready to unselfishly and humbly do what is needed and asked.
LEARNING. Repentance is more than eating humble pie. It is unlearning the self-centeredness, the self-importance, and selfishness, that need to always be right and to always win. We need to unlearn the selfishness that leads to our doing things to hurt others and to damage relationships. Repentance is dying to self and living for God. It is taking seriously our relationship with God. It is learning to live toward others in ways that imitate Christ and please God.
“Never act from motives of rivalry or personal vanity, but in humility think more of each other than you do of yourselves. None of you should think only of his own affairs, but consider other people’s interests also. Let your attitude to life be that of Christ Jesus himself. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his privileges as God’s equal, but stripped himself of every advantage by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born a man. And plainly seen as a human being, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, to the point of death, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal” (Philippians 2:3-8 JBPHILLIPS).
_______________ 1See 2 Samuel 11 and 12 for the account of David’s sin and repentance.