While playing the board game Sorry! with my son, I realized that we do not always mean we are sorry when we say it. In the board game, we recognize that “Sorry” from our opponent is really a polite way to rejoice in an advantageous move. However, when the offense is more personal and especially if it has been repeated, we often question the sincerity. Although we cannot climb inside a person to know their true motives, I believe that actions and attitudes speak louder than words. The following signs are how to know if the repentance is real.
- A broken and contrite heart – This means that the person feels the weight of the offense. They are truly saddened that their actions caused another person pain.
- A willingness to take responsibility – A repentant person owns the offense and doesn’t make excuses for it. The offender may have contributing reasons, such as, “I was really angry” or “I wasn’t thinking” or “I didn’t realize that it would affect you” but true repentance does not use these as a get-out-jail-free card. Repentance also doesn’t blame the victim. Saying “If you hadn’t done X, Y, or Z” is not taking responsibility for the offense.
- A willingness to not offend again – The offender is willing to make a commitment to do what needs to be done so they will not offend again. Whether this means simply being mindful of the hurtful behavior or going to counseling to address a repetitive transgression, the offender shows a desire to change.
- It is not out of self-pity – An unrepentant person will avoid responsibility by saying things like, “I can’t ever do anything right” or “I can’t ever please you.”. These are just excuses not to change and are not indicative of true repentance.
- It is humble, not angry – Sometimes people can say the right words but with the wrong attitude. Yelling, “I’m sorry,” does not communicate repentance but instead says, “I’m sorry I got caught.”
- It claims no rights while asking for mercy for a wrong done – I have counseled many couples who are struggling due to infidelity. It is commonly requested that the unfaithful one give their spouse access to passwords and be accountable for their free time. An unrepentance spouse will deny this request, claiming a right to privacy. I counsel that the right to privacy was given up the day he/she chose to be unfaithful. A good sign of real repentance is the willingness to give up a right to privacy, a right to continue a destructive conversation or relationship, or the right to be trusted.
Repentance is a 180 degree turn. Remorse and regret may eventually result in a turnaround but these alone lack the essential element of taking responsibility for the offense. Even though the offender may not consistently display all these signs, if they are taking responsibility, they are on the road to repentance.