How Do You Know When Someone is Truly Sorry?
by Leslie Vernick MSW
It’s not always easy to tell if someone is truly repentant. They may say the words, I’m sorry, or cry buckets of tears, but how do we know if their tears are for the pain they’ve caused or for the pain they are in?
The apostle Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow, worldly sorrow that leads to death and godly sorrow that brings repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). I believe that it is crucial that the body of Christ learn to distinguish between the two especially if we are a people helper working with individuals in destructive relationships or ourselves are in one.
Worldly sorrow is a self-focused sorrow. It may contain great emotion, tears, and apologies, but the grief expressed is for one’s self.
The person mourns the consequences of his or her sin and what she has lost. This may be a marriage, a job, a reputation, friends and/or family, or can even be one’s own idea of who they thought they were. Here are some of the things we often hear a person say when they are sorrowing unto death.
- I can’t believe I did such a thing.
- Why is this happening to me?
- Please forgive me – implying, please don’t make me suffer the consequences of my sin.
- Why won’t he/she forgive me? (In other words, why can’t reconciliation be easy and quick?)
- I’m so sorry (sad).
- I’m a horrible person.
- I wish I were dead.
- I hate myself.
Judas is a good example of this type of sorrow (Matthew 27:3-5). After he betrayed Christ, he was seized with remorse yet it did not lead to godly repentance, but self-hatred and suicide. It is natural to feel compassion for the person suffering such emotional and spiritual pain.
However, it’s crucial to not confuse this kind of sorrow with the kind of sorrow that leads to biblical repentance, especially when you are the victim of someone’s sin or you are ministering to both the sorrowing sinner and the one who has been sinned against.
One-sided forgiveness may be granted, but biblical reconciliation is not possible when there has been no genuine repentance.
Godly sorrow demonstrates grief over one’s sinfulness toward God as well as the pain it has caused others.
John the Baptist said to the religious leaders, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sin and turned to God” (Luke 3:8).
Below are eight evidences that demonstrate the fruit of genuine repentance.
- Accepts full responsibility for actions and attitudes, doesn’t blame others or situations.
- Acknowledges sinfulness (instead of “I can’t believe I could do such a thing”).
- Recognizes the effects of actions on others and shows empathy for the pain he/she’s caused.
- Able to identify brokenness in detail such as abusive tactics, attitudes of entitlement, and/or areas of chronic deceit.
- Accepts consequences without demands or conditions.
- Makes amends for damages.
- Is willing to make consistent changes over the long term such as new behaviors and attitudes characteristic of healthy relationships.
- Is willing to be accountable and if needed, long-term help.
In my work with couples who have experienced grievous sin, I have found that it is not sin that ends a marriage.
All couples experience sin. Rather, it is one’s blindness and refusal to acknowledge their sin and repent that makes reconciliation and healing impossible.