March 28, 2017

Real Repentance

Gary Thomas — 

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

If a spouse has been unfaithful; if a spouse is “messing around” with meth and “sort of” promising to never touch it again, what is a faithful spouse supposed to do? How can a husband or wife know if their spouse has entered into real, biblical repentance?

It’s an important question. Counselors tell us that at crisis points in marriage, a spouse may make a few small changes in the right direction only until the sense of crisis passes. Then he/she goes right back to the offending behavior.

This is flat-out abusive. When you know that what you’re doing is frustrating your spouse or even making him/her miserable and you do just enough to keep the platform of living together alive so that you can ultimately continue to make him/her miserable, that’s spiritually sick. It’s malicious. “I’m not going to let you go but I’m also not going to change.” I can’t say this strongly enough: it is a spiritual disorder to treat anyone, much less your spouse, this way. This is about you and God before it is about you and your spouse. If this is you, it is a state of rebellion against God and He is simply using your spouse to help you see what you’ve become.

This is a high call for biblical counselors who must be sophisticated enough to bring an end to the evil (change needs to happen) rather than unwittingly offer a platform for the evil to continue (just try to do a little bit better so your spouse isn’t quite so angry and won’t separate from you).

If I resent my spouse for calling me to become more like Christ then ultimately who I really resent is Christ; it means in my heart of hearts I actually wish He were different, or that He didn’t call me to become like Him.  This attitude needs to be confronted, not coddled.

If a marriage is going to be rebuilt after trust has been repeatedly broken, it has to be rebuilt on real repentance. The offending spouse has to demonstrate their horror at what they’ve done by going full speed in the opposite direction, not by taking a three-degree turn simply to show a tiny bit of “progress.”

This is true for major and minor issues, to a different degree. If my issue is being chronically late and I’m truly repentant, I start showing up early. If the issue is saying hurtful things, it’s not “repentance” to say hurtful things a little less often. Real repentance is stopping abusive language completely and intentionally saying kind, encouraging and praiseworthy things. If the issue is a lack of employment, I don’t settle for a part-time job. I work the part-time job and then spend just as many hours looking for a full-time job.

Real repentance reveals a real heart transformation; our spouse can see the change not just hear us say we intend to change.  

Real repentance continues with the offending spouse owning his/her faults. It’s common for me to see a spouse who has acted deplorably start to resent having the spotlight put on him or her and thus respond by saying, “You know, he/she isn’t perfect either.”

The sarcastic part of me wants to say, “Really? I thought they were sinless. Well, this changes everything. We’ll forget about your deplorable wickedness until we get this person you’re married to to be a little more patient when you mess up.”

If I make a sinless spouse the requirement of repenting then I’m never going to have to repent and the marriage is going to stay miserable. Avoiding changing a grave failing because your spouse has a minor one is an arrogant spiritual trick that some spouses use to avoid having to change. It is a great offense against love.

A third mark of real repentance is that a spouse will welcome, without resentment, increased accountability. If you say you’re not looking at porn or contacting a previous flirtation (or worse), then you shouldn’t have any problem letting your spouse pick up your phone or IPad and scrolling through the messages or history. There is no good reason I would care if my wife looks at every app on my phone. If she finds out I ordered her a surprise birthday present, that’s on her. There is no good reason I should be afraid if she checks out where I’ve been on Amazon or Netflix or surfing the web. Why would I care unless there was something I didn’t want her to see? And why wouldn’t I want her to see it unless I shouldn’t have been doing it to begin with?

Secrecy is hiding and by definition the opposite of intimacy. Some people think they can have their “sin on the side” and their spouse’s intimate affections, but that’s a lie. Repentance is, at root, a choice: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” You’re calling your spouse to make up his or her mind: do they want to be married, or not? You’re not interested in a quasi-marriage where they are half single and half spouse. You will be all-in with them, responding with grace, forgiveness and generosity, but they have to accept the main course of marriage before they get to enjoy the desserts.

One husband sinned greatly with several extramarital affairs. The wife had full biblical “permission” to leave him; no pastor I know would have objected. But she thought she saw a real change for the first time so they went to a place that specializes in sexual addiction. The counselor set out the conditions: “Your wife is going to write down thirty questions that she has always wanted to ask you. You’re going to be hooked up to a lie detector and a detective is going to monitor every answer. She’s finally going to get all her answers, and you’ll submit to this lie detector test every four months for the next two years. And by the way—one more act of unfaithfulness and she is going to divorce you.”

The husband agreed and through much counseling and confession their marriage was restored. At the end of two years the marriage had become so sweet that the wife told her husband, “You don’t have to take the lie detector tests anymore” but the husband said, “Yes, I do.”

You see, that’s real repentance. That’s a man who realizes the harm he has done and the harm he is capable of doing again so he welcomes accountability. His desire to stop hurting his wife is greater than his desire to “enjoy” the sin that wounds her. He knows the latter desire is not yet nonexistent so he takes concrete steps to guard himself and ultimately protect his wife from further pain.

Contrast this with a husband who had “dabbled” in meth. He and his wife have two small children. When his wife said it wasn’t safe for her and the children to share the same house with a meth addict, but she was willing to work with him if he would enter recovery, he said he was done with meth, recovery wasn’t necessary, and he refused to consider any drug tests. That’s not repentance. Lying and addiction are virtual synonyms. A repentant addict knows this and admits it and sees the tests as necessary steps for healing.

One husband who got it had displayed controlling behavior over his wife until a separation woke him up. I told him he had to be more concerned for his wife’s welfare than he was over her return. “If you truly love her, you shouldn’t want her to return until you know she won’t be hurt by this behavior anymore.” He later told me that sentence hit him like a sledgehammer and he kept repeating it to himself until it was true. He really didn’t want his wife to agree to live together anymore until he was certain there had been a heart change sufficient enough to protect her from his former behavior. Today they are back together and enjoying the best season of their marriage to date. Why? Real repentance ushered in grace, mercy, and healing.

If you are the offending spouse and your spouse is willing to hang with you, you owe him/her real repentance. Not a minor change that keeps them silent for a few more months, but an admission of guilt, a major overhaul of behavior, concrete accountability to maintain the change and a heart transformation so complete that you don’t even want to get back together until you are relatively certain that, under the grace of God, your behavior won’t make your spouse miserable any more. Anything less is not real repentance.

If your spouse is on the treadmill of saying-I’m-sorry-but-never-changing you can say, with some integrity, “Being sorry isn’t about what you say or even about how you feel. Biblically, it’s ultimately about what you do.”

This blog is not written for women in abusive marriages. The advice offered in these posts will challenge both husbands and wives, but the advice could be counter-productive if it is applied in an abusive relationship.

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47 responses to Real Repentance

  1. Wow. Thank you, Pastor Gary. That is serious. Repentance is not a small matter. I remember hearing a Pastor on Psalm 23 and doing a word study on the sentence, “He restores my soul.” It means exactly what we think it would, of course, and includes all of what would be needed for restoration. It means that in restoration, God has to go back to the root…back to the place of departure…and address all of the sin, starting with its origin, so that they never return to the sin again. He even goes back to the time when conviction and repentance started, so that they never return to the sin. It’s a similar concept to what the Israelites did to place milestones along their journey with God of what He was doing to reveal and heal. God addresses all the places of departure and places where conviction of sin occurred.

  2. I am accused of being the offending spouse, but I don’t know how to change. The main problem is that I really struggle to be responsive or enthusiastic in our physical relationship, though not denying him, and my husband believes he is defrauded. I am so sorry that this causes my husband grief, but I don’t know how to fix myself.
    I don’t feel emotionally safe with him because I know he doesn’t understand my personality, we are opposites and he often is mistrustful of me. He also is angry and very stressed a lot of the time due to his work and I am exhausted due to the load I am carrying with our home and children. I tend to be very sensitive to all the stress which I constantly seek to surrender to God. But I just don’t know how to be physically “enthusiastic” despite our lack of emotional intimacy.

    • Distressed,

      Two websites focus on helping women address these issues. Both are written by women and are geared for women (though they have a number of male readers).

    • There seems to be a deeper issue going on here and that issue may not be yours. More details are needed to come to this conclusion but from your description, it doesn’t sound to me like you are the offending spouse. Even so, there’s work to be done on both ends. ♡

    • Dear Distressed,

      I see some troubling signs in your description. I don’t think you are right that you are the “offending party.” It sounds like you are being manipulated by a selfish, emotionally volatile man. The first problem that must be dealt with is what is causing your lack of emotional intimacy (his anger, etc.)

      Please visit Leslie Vernick’s website and learn about d structure marriages and see if it applies to your situation. I think you need to reach out to a counselor for help and tell them exactly what is going on.

  3. Another great post. Thank you so much. It answers my past and helps for my present. My husband and I are working through your new book, Cherish. All of this is so helpful!

  4. I needed this today! I read your blog “Enough is Enough” and signed up for your blog. My husband has been diagnosed with OCPD and Narcissism. We are in the process of church restoration that is requiring repentance from him. This is a great guideline and has helped me to know what to look for.

  5. Your ministry has been incredibly helpful on my journey. Thank you for being a voice for abuse victims of every kind & not using the scriptures to further victimize as many in the Church do.

    What you say about the marriage with previous alcohol issues, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, borderline physical abuse, and financial abuse….I left for the second time in November & have been out of the house since then. My husband truly has shown signs of change but continues to have issues with boundaries, “preaching” to me, and still does consume alcohol, though has greatly decreased consumption & only drinks beer now. He is pushing hard for reconciliation. He continually says that he wants his family back & that we don’t want our kids to be destroyed by a broken home. He is paying part of daycare but is resistant to paying per child support guidelines. I just am so afraid of returning and completely losing myself again. He says that if I have my true identity established in my relationship with God that that won’t happen, but I just don’t know.

  6. Amen to Gary’s post! I became a professional biblical counselor many years ago. I was convinced that behavioral modification therapy/counseling will never address the spiritual condition of the heart – deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Good news! His grace can lead us to biblical repentance an genuine character change.

  7. Amen to Gary’s post! I became a professional biblical counselor many years ago. I was convinced that behavioral modification therapy/counseling will never address the spiritual condition of the heart – deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). Good news! His grace can lead us to biblical repentance an genuine character change.

    Maya Graves

  8. “One husband sinned greatly with several extramarital affairs. The wife had full biblical “permission” to leave him; no pastor I know would have objected. But she thought she saw a real change for the first time so they went to a place that specializes in sexual addiction.”

    This could have been my story. My exh had many extramarital affairs, but I chose to work on reconciliation for over 2 years. We even went to a place that specializes in sexual addiction (wish it had been one with a lie detector….). I gave the marriage my all, while he gave nothing. There were a few areas that looked like there would be change, but it was all talk and no action (watch actions, not words!). God finally opened the door and freed me and the children from that hellish nightmare of infidelity, porn addiction and abuse. In His mercy, he led me out. My hands were bleeding from hanging on. I am so thankful to Jesus for the freedom he offers.

  9. AMEN! It definitely, requires the conviction of the Holy Spirit to help “ALL OF US”… to stay on the right path. To” Admit is to Omit”, to REPENT means to be RESTORED this is how WE conquer and defeat the oppressor (s)… from being round about… and from within…WE must be REBORN AGAIN! WE all need cleansing on a daily basis… seeing how we sin on a daily basis. Our thoughts and looks alone can cause us to sin….not just from the words that perceive out of our mouths, or our actions! ADDITIONS ARE REAL PEOPLE…from stealing to lying…from eating to working, watching TV, to buying clothes, gambling, cheating, the list can go on and on…Thank you Mr. Gary Thomas for sharing your spiritual wisdom and knowledge. God Bless….

  10. Thank you so much for saying what needs to be said! So many pastors will preach on forgiveness and preservation of marriage and then mention there may be rare exceptions, but never go into detail like you did. For someone like me, who spent 21 years with a covert narcissist, I thought I had to stay each time he promised to do better. He abused me emotionally, neglected me, lied and had secret addictions. I had to seek counseling and help outside of the church to finally set my mind straight and break free from him.

  11. Excellent!

  12. Yes! Thank you, Gary! So well-done! Sharing today!

  13. Thank you for this post! It is helpful to me. Do you have any books or other helpful information for the offended spouse whose offending spouse does not see himself (ie will not take responsibility for his behavior; has anxiety/ocpd )? I have chosen to stay in the marriage (no abuse or danger) and am in Christian counseling. I have read your books on marriage, as well as several others that my pastor recommended, but none are fully devoted to this type of relationship. I am very much seeking to grow spiritually and serve the Lord through this trial. Thank you!

    • Persevering,

      Leslie Vernick’s “How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong”

      • Thank you! I have read and studied that one! It was very helpful during a particularly difficult time. I have been considering reading it again. Now, I think I will do just that!

    • The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick is good. She also has a blog and free resources online.

    • Persevering — I’m so sorry for all you are dealing with! One good option may be “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. Not a Christian author but very well-researched. Another Christian blog that I like is Cindy Burrell’s “Hurt By Love”. She has a lot of good articles! She has an assessment that we recommend (our ministry — Give Her Wings). Maybe this will help: Bless you, friend!

  14. From a offending spouse, thank-you. This article is nearly word for word what my wife has been saying to me for years. Over the last six months I’ve been in a 12 step program (Celebrate Recovery) and for the first time since we’ve been married have accountability partners and I am not hiding anything from my wife. She can look at anything or ask anything without me pulling away. When you are honest with God and your spouse you don’t need to hide anymore. Full steam ahead in the opposite direction. Thank-you

  15. Yes and amen! Repentance expressed over the LONG TERM is the signal to a spouse whether to stay and help a struggling spouse with their sinfulness or to separate for the sake of protection from all kinds of abuse. In my experience, this is a relatively simple determination. The difference between repentance and unrepentance is glaring:

    Repentant: What do you need from me to feel secure? Who do we need to share this with so I am held accountable and you have someone to go to when you are struggling? What tools can we use for accountability? I understand that rebuilding trust is a process that will likely take years — I’m in it for the long haul and will do whatever you need for as long as you need, because I want you to be able to trust me.

    Unrepentant: Aren’t you over this yet?! No, I don’t need to answer your questions; I told you I’ve stopped. There’s no need to tell anyone and I’ll be angry if you do. I thought being a Christian meant that you HAVE to forgive everyone. Forgive and forget. Why do you keep bringing this up?

    Repentance is KEY in knowing what God’s will for a marriage is, especially when there is chronic abusive behavior of any type!

    Thank you, Gary, for spelling this out so clearly! May counselors be given heavenly wisdom as they help hurting, wounded people determine God’s will for their marriages.

    • Sarah, I love those added questions, contrasting “repentant” and “unrepentant”. Well done! Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Sarah, reading your post has opened my eyes to so many things. “Unrepentant: Aren’t you over this yet?! No, I don’t need to answer your questions; I told you I’ve stopped. There’s no need to tell anyone and I’ll be angry if you do. I thought being a Christian meant that you HAVE to forgive everyone. Forgive and forget. Why do you keep bringing this up?”. I get told this almost every day, especially when I ask questions or want to know where my partner has been and what he did during the day. I am forbidden to bring up any hurt feeling I still have and when I speak of communication, I am stonewalled. The resentment and anger this causes (which cannot be expressed because I might be perceived as ‘crazy’) definitely has an effect on the physical body as well as relationships with all those around us. Thank you for making this clear to me. And thank you Gary for a fantastic, straight to the point post.

  16. Great post. Lots of food for thought and action.

  17. And after we have repented, we wait for God to repair the damage we have done, no matter how long takes.

    I hurt my wife and she ended our marriage. I couldn’t see or hear what I was doing to her before Christ made me new, but it was too late for her. I didn’t love her like Christ loves His church then, but I do now. My prayer is that God will soften her heart towards me so that our family can be restored and be rebuilt on the firm foundation of Christ. Please pray for us.

    • Truly a tragedy. For you now, following Christ and building your own foundation on Him is what is most important, and for your wife to build her foundation on Him too. Those are the most vital things to pray for and seek, whether or not the Lord restores the marriage. You can love her even if she decides to marry someone else, and learn and grow from the tragedy.

  18. So much truth in this post!

  19. Thank you. For those who’ve been accused of ‘legalism’ regarding the search for ways to develop this kind of litmus test, it is a great relief to have a biblical context for defining a method of evaluating true change.

  20. Wonderful stuff. Hart to hear, but accurate.