A lot of people ask me, “How do I discern the repentance of somebody who's harmed me?” Particularly when a spouse has harmed them in a grievous manner. And I think it's a really important question to slow down and consider because there are vastly different impacts if someone is truly repentant or if their repentance is not genuine. When someone is truly repentant, we have hope that things can be rebuild and restored. When someone has done harm and they haven't repented in a deep and meaningful way, we have to have concerns that there will be behavior in the future that will continue, that continues to harm them. So it's a wonderful question. Scripture gives us two great categories: worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. And what we want to do is identify godly sorrow, but we also want to foster that in a person, but we also need to be wise and make sure that someone is not just speaking sorrowfully in a worldly way.

There's this wonderful illustration in Scripture in Luke 19 about Zacchaeus, and he was a crooked tax collector, but when he encountered Jesus, he repented. And when he repented, not only did he vow to give back the money he took, but he also returned what he stole fourfold. He even gave half of his own possessions to the poor. And we can just see his repentance was radical, it was deep, it was honest. He looked very different after his repentance, and I think it's a really important story for us all. Chris Moles kind of summarizes a story in a sweet way when he says one is a thief no longer a thief when he is a generous man. And that has just really helped me in evaluating other people's repentance and guiding people to evaluate the repentance of others. Paul definitely expounds on godly regret and the difference between worldly sorrow, and we want to make sure we do a good job identifying the difference.

One is we don't want someone to only feel worldly sorrow, being sorry for themselves or feeling afraid of the consequences that they're trying to do damage control. We really want someone to be restored to the Lord. But secondly, we want to be thinking wisely about protecting the person that they've harmed and giving them good counsel and advice about how to relate to someone, particularly when they've been grievously harmed. So we really do need to understand how godly sorrow differs from worldly sorrow and what kind of presentation that it has. When someone has godly sorrow, there's going to be an evident change in both the way that they're thinking and the way that they're behaving. Godly sorrow is always directed by and towards God, and it's going to produce these outward and inward changes that are unrecognizable. We want to be looking for them. We want to be thinking, What does real repentance entail and what should I be listening for as if I'm trying to make that kind of assessment?

And so here's just a couple of things that you can be listening for as you're walking alongside someone. The first is that they should recognize that their offense is against God and their relationship with God is in full view. And we see this in Psalm 51. David states that his sin of adultery was against the Lord when he says, “Against you, you only I have sinned and I have done what is evil in your sight.” Now, there's no doubt that his adultery harmed many people, but David is trying to make the point that his sin was first against the Lord, and this type of confession is going to be critical and found in any aspect of true repentance. Secondly, you want to hear if the person is agreeing with Scripture's indictment of their own sin. I often hear apologies that are lacking. I know that I have offered some myself and they sound something like, “Well, I'm sorry if you found my words offensive,” or “I'm sorry if your feelings were hurt.”

Now while these words acknowledge the hurt, they really don't go far enough. When we have sinned, we really need to understand how Scripture speaks about what we have done. We want to be more precise with the indictment of our own sin. And so our confessions and our apologies are going to sound a little bit different. I might say something like, “My words were harsh and I failed. Since I'm called to build you up.” Or you might hear, “I'm sorry I was not gentle when you approached me. I really failed to listen to you. I was not open to reason.” So you can hear how Scripture has helped shape that person's understanding of their sin. Thirdly, when someone is confessing, they're going to offer specifics and the more grievous the sin that was committed, it's more critical for there to include specific infractions and details when someone is repenting.

We hear Paul do this when he's talking about his own sin in Acts 26. He's standing on trial, and this is really not an ideal time for him to be honest about his past, and yet he recounts his days as a Pharisee and he offers a lot of concrete detail with specificity about how he sinned. He says, “I've put many of the Lord's people in prison and they were put to death,” or “I cast my vote against them, and I went from one synagogue to another to have people punished. I tried to force them to blasphemy.” He said he was so obsessed with persecuting them that he even hunted Christians down in foreign cities. He's not glossing over or minimizing, blame-shifting or defending. He's simply owning and making a lot of connections. And when someone has committed a grievous sin, it's really important that they are specific. It's not just that “I'm sorry that I frightened you.” It's that “I'm sorry I frightened you when I walked across the room towards you,” or “I'm sorry I betrayed you when I shared this information or when I text or when I sent that email.” They're going to be very specific if they understand the gravity of what they have done, constantly making connections to understanding the level of the infractions. Fourthly, they're going to recognize that it's God's grace that is allowing them to turn from their sins. They're going to be humbly dependent upon the Lord and are going to be delighted that he has given them forgiveness. They're not going to be wanting to say, “I'm going to try harder. I'm going to do better. I'm going to start over.” They're going to really understand they need God's help and his mercy, and they're going to move away from self-reliance, and they're just really going to be having an interest on their relationship with the Lord and their dependence upon him.

Obviously the fifth, we want the oppressor or the person who has been doing harm to have a strong desire to dismantle their old sinful self. We want them to put on, but they also have to put off, as a language of Scripture. We want them to cultivate new desires to replace their fallen ones. And a truly repentant person is really going to be committed to the process. They don't think that repentance is a one and done event. They're going to be looking at this as “This is a new way to live. I need to know how to do better. How am I going to behave in these particular situations?” And they're just going to be in persistent pursuit of holiness, and continually when they're failing, they're going to be continually confessing their sin. They're going to be forsaking their desires, but they're also going to be looking for ways to replace their behaviors.

Sixth, I think it's really important that they recognize that how the harm that they have done has affected the people that they have hurt, right? It's not just going to be about them and their consequences and their embarrassment. They're actually going to understand the harm that they have perpetrated on other people, and that's going to be in the forefront of their own minds. They're going to see how their behavior has impacted them, and they really want to be part of that healing process, if they can, for those they have wounded. They're going to be broken over what they have done. They're going to be able to say with detail, again, “I harmed you in these specific ways and I've damaged you,” and they're going to honor that. And part of that is really them beginning to understand that they don't expect or demand to be received back into a relationship. They know that they need to rebuild trust to do work of restoration because their concerns are really shifting away from themselves and are more focused on those who they've harmed. And even if that means that they recognize the relationship has been harmed beyond repair. They want what is best for the other person.