It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a month since I wrote my post about Forgiveness. I intended to write a followup within a day or two about repentance, which is obviously closely related to forgiveness. I ended up writing about a lot of other things instead, not because repentance doesn’t need to be addressed, but because I found I just couldn’t get into it. (Writer’s Block – why must you be so… so… Gah! – what’s the word I’m looking for?!?) This is part of an overall trend the last few weeks away from talking about the affair and dealing with other issues and just life in general.
Anyway, I’ve determined to sit down and write the post I should have written weeks ago. At some point in the next 1-60 days I might do a follow-up piece on Grace and Mercy. Then again, maybe not. I bet they’d be good, though.
The Three R’s
Repentance and remorse. What are they? What does it mean to feel remorse? Is it the same as repenting? What about regretting? They’re all connected but different.
I can deeply regret having the affair because of the messy outcome but still think the affair was okay. I don’t, but it’s not inconsistent to both regret and excuse the affair. It all depends on why you regret the affair. If you primarily regret it because you were caught or because you spouse got hurt, that’s different than regretting it because you know the affair was wrong.
I can also feel remorse over how I hurt my wife but not hate the sin I committed. This is a bit trickier, but it’s not impossible. Basically it’s acknowledging my responsibility for hurting my wife, but minimizing the wrongness of what I did in an absolute sense. It’s the kind of attitude that leads to a tearful confession after an affair because of the pain it caused, but allows for other affairs in the future.
Mere repentance does not require regret or remorse. Repenting really means changing your mind and rejecting the sin and resolving not to do it again. This sounds good, but if it isn’t accompanied by remorse and regret, it’s not going to lead to a meaningful restoration of the relationship. It’s an empty, incomplete repentance.
Full repentance includes all three aspects – it acknowledges the sin (“I sinned and I hurt you”), it regrets the sin (“I’m sorry I sinned and hurt you”), and it resolves to reject and turn away from the sin (“I was completely wrong and I won’t do it again”). There’s a lot more that goes into restoring a relationship, but that is repentance at its core.
Signs of True Repentance
True repentance does not try to minimize the sin. Saying “It was just sex” kind of misses the point, don’t you think?
True repentance does not make allowances for the sin. This means no contact with the affair partner. God knows it’s hard enough not to fall back into sin as it is, but if you add in little opportunities for you to be tempted it’s a lot harder. The opportunities can be physical, virtual, or mental. This translates into you can’t see her, you can’t text/IM/email/call her, and you can’t nurture the love for her in your heart.
True repentance does not try to blame others for the affair. If you don’t admit that you are 100% responsible for the affair, then you are not acknowledging you were wrong. If you aren’t acknowledging you were wrong, who on earth can you repent from that?
True repentance (like true faith, according to James) is not alone. There are many signs and actions that go along with true repentance but are not repentance themselves. They are outward signs of the inward changes. These things restore relationships.
Restoring a relationship means putting words into action. It means rebuilding trust by being trustworthy*. It means actually not sinning anymore and putting safeguards in place to prevent yourself from sinning again.
To make this personal, as the person who sinned and hurt my spouse, I have a lot of work to do to restore the relationship. One of the ways I show my repentance is by doing the hard work, being selfless and gracious, having the hard conversations, going to counseling, giving up some freedoms to built trust, showing my wife I love her by having a thick skin sometimes and loving her just the same.
What it doesn’t mean
There are different types and depths of affairs, but if like me the affair was emotional as well as physical, then being repentant does not mean that the feelings for the affair partner will suddenly stop. They will fade over time, but unless there’s an aggravating factor, it’s going to take time apart. You probably won’t stop missing the AP immediately either. The key is to be tempted but not to sin.
True repentance doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge problems in your marriage that existed before the affair. This is actual pretty crucial. If one or the other of you is still vulnerable to an affair because of something you two are doing, then you need to fix it. Saying the loyal spouse bears some responsibility for the vulnerability is NOT the same as saying she is responsible for the affair. Protecting the loyal spouse from all criticism isn’t a requirement for repentance, but it is a cause for resentment.
True repentance does not mean hating the sinner. There’s plenty of room to hate the sin, but hating the affair partner is wrong. I’m no psychologist, but I’d bet this is a kind of transference. It’s blaming the other woman for the affair and then directing your hate at her instead of recognizing that you are both 100% responsible and both in need of forgiveness. (which brings me to Grace, but that’s a topic for another day) Not only are we called to forgive and love our enemies, but it’s probably not very good for your own recovery.
True repentance does not mean that you the cheater have to be a door mat for the loyal spouse. The loyal spouse is going to do some bad things out of anger. I think that’s pretty universal. I also think you need to deal with what you’ve brought on yourself, including the bad or sinful reaction from your betrayed spouse. However, this is not a license to be treated like shit the rest of your life. You owe it to yourself, your spouse, and your marriage to show the loyal spouse grace and love, but to also stand up for what’s right, to be strong and confident in your forgiveness. It’s not all one or the other – it’s both together – and there’s a time for each to prevail.
So what’s it all about? Repentance, like forgiveness, is recognizing the true depth of what you’ve done – all the sin, all the pain, and the mistakes. And like forgiveness, repentance means changing ones mind – rejecting and turning away from the things that happened, never to return to them. It’s a process and hopefully the result is a restored relationship.
*I’d argue that part of both true repentance and rebuilding trust is confession and asking for forgiveness. I know there’s some difference of opinion on this point, so I won’t be dogmatic, but at a minimum I think you should confess to God and a pastor or some other trusted counselor. My argument for confessing to the spouse is that you are deceiving and lying so long as you don’t confess. However, I make an allowance here that confession, especially a fully detailed confession, may be more harmful that beneficial. I leave it to the reader to decide what is best. I cannot and will not make that decision for another person.