Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness

If the various Christian virtues were running against each other in a high school popularity contest, love would probably win.

And forgiveness would probably be in the top five. Who knows, forgiveness might even beat out faith and hope for second place!

Forgiveness is so sweet . . . so nice . . . . Who doesn’t love forgiveness? As the old saying goes, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Forgiveness is the pretty, popular girl that everyone is always swarming around and wanting to be friends with.

Repentance, on the other hand, is that ugly, awkward kid nobody likes. “Ewww! Get away from me! I’m not voting for you!”

Yeah . . . repentance would definitely place near the bottom in a popularity contest.

But you know how sometimes the most unlikely kids from high school end out marrying each other and living happily ever after?

What if forgiveness got married to repentance?

“Oh come on! That ugly repentance kid could never land a hottie like forgiveness! Dream on!

But it’s true!

Repentance and forgiveness are inseparable partners.

Isn’t forgiveness enough?

So . . . what’s with all this forgiveness and repentance talk?

It’s been on my mind. I keep hearing about people who have harmed others, sometimes criminally, asking their victims for forgiveness without showing any remorse or offering any sincere apologies for the harm they have done, let alone providing restitution. And yes, I’ve had people ask me for forgiveness when they’re clearly not sorry for what they did.

Oh well. People are gonna do what they’re gonna do.

What bothers me is when those who’ve harmed another person start talking about how if the victim were a real Christian, the victim would forgive and forget.

Never mind that hurting someone isn’t exactly a Christian thing to do. Still, victims are supposed to just forgive—especially if they’re Christians.

The perpetrators might even quote this passage from the Bible:

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21–22)

That pretty well settles it, right? Even if someone keeps right on doing bad things to us, a true Christian is supposed to just forgive, forgive, forgive every single time.

Thing is, that’s true. A real Christian is supposed to forgive, forgive, forgive no matter what wrong is done.

But that’s only half the story.

There’s a lot of superficial thinking floating around about forgiveness.

However, a real Christian looks deeper, and pays attention to everything the Bible says about forgiveness, not just to one or two isolated passages.

Before we go Biblical, let’s look at a real life example.

Charlie Sheen melts down, insults everyone, and gets himself fired

As I mentioned in my previous post, Charlie Sheen has been on the talk show circuit lately. Most of the talk is not about his current acting gig on the FX cable TV series “Anger Management,” but about the tumultuous end of his eight-year stint on what had become the most popular sitcom on broadcast television: “Two and a Half Men.”

Charlie Sheen in Meltdown Mode

Charlie Sheen Goes Crazy

Sheen was fired from his position as the highest paid actor on TV in the most popular show on TV because in real life he was very much like the character he played on the show: an alcoholic womanizer who partied hard and partied often. As a result of his profligate lifestyle, he had become unreliable on the set—and his periodic trips to detox didn’t help.

When one of those trips to detox caused a delay in the taping of the show, and thus in Sheen’s income, Sheen got personal. He attacked Chuck Lorre, the show’s creator and executive producer, using highly charged and insulting language. He also attacked Warner Brothers, CBS, and his co-stars on the show.

This “episode” in Sheen’s real life resulted in his firing from the top acting position in television. He then became even more personal, engaging in wild, semi-coherent diatribes and assuring the world that there was a vast, diabolical conspiracy afoot whose sole purpose was to destroy him.

Lorre and Warner Brothers did not stoop to his level nor dignify his rants with responses. They simply killed off his character, Charlie Harper, from the “Two and a Half Men” show in the following season’s premiere.

Should Chuck Lorre and Warner Brothers forgive Charlie Sheen?

Now, two years later, Sheen is fielding questions from talk show hosts on whether he would like to return to his old role on “Two and a Half Men.” Here it is, a little over nine minutes into this interview on Letterman in January:

So . . . Sheen would like to appear on the final episode of “Two and a Half Men.” (Do I detect a death wish for the program on Sheen’s part?)

Apparently he has taken back the insults he flung at his co-star, Jon Cryer, during his famous melt-down.

But he’s just as insulting as ever about the program itself. When Letterman points out to him that it would be difficult for him to return to the show because his character has been killed off, Sheen quips, “Well no, I am dead, but so is the show.”

So . . . how likely is it that Lorre and Warner Brothers will bring Sheen back onto the program? An old saying about snowballs in hell comes to mind . . . .

And speaking of hell, the producers already did bring Charlie Harper back. It was in a sequence in which his brother, Alan Harper (Jon Cryer), while hospitalized and delirious from severe injuries, encounters Charlie’s departed spirit. As it turns out, Charlie has been condemned to live out eternity in hell as an “old broad” (played by Kathy Bates) with testicles. Here’s the sequence from the show:

So I think we can safely say that there is no way in hell that Lorre and Warner Brothers are going to bring Sheen back onto the program.

And why should they? He has shown no remorse whatsoever for all the harm he did to the program, its producers, and the hundreds of people whose livelihoods depended on the continued production of “Two and a Half Men.” Here is a report on CNN, aired just before Sheen was fired two years ago, about how much money (and hence, jobs) rode on Sheen’s performances:

(Note the prophetic and highly symbolic cake-cutting three minutes into the clip, in which Sheen neatly separates himself from his two co-stars on “Two and a Half Men.”)

There was no conspiracy to bring Charlie Sheen down. He brought himself down through his alcoholism, his drug addiction, and his generally irresponsible, adolescent lifestyle. And he hurt a lot of people in the process.

Perhaps Lorre and the others in the studio can find it in their hearts to forgive Sheen. However, to bring him back when he has done nothing but thumb his nose at them would not only show a complete lack of cohones on their part, but would serve as a validation of Sheen’s monstrously childish behavior.

You see, as I said before, forgiveness is only half of the story.

The other half of the story is repentance.

Okay, okay . . . yes, we should always forgive

But first, let’s deal with this issue of real Christians always forgiving, no matter what someone does to them.

Yes, as Jesus said in Matthew 18:21–22, Christians are supposed to forgive as often as someone harms them.

But here’s where many people—even many Christians—seem to have missed the point.

Jesus instructs his followers to forgive, not primarily for the sake of those who have harmed them, but for the sake of their own salvation and their own spiritual wellbeing.

It helps if we consider what it means not to forgive.

When someone has wronged us, and we are unable or unwilling to forgive them, how does it affect our own soul and our own life?

  • We are angry
  • We are bitter
  • We are hurt
  • We keep reliving how we were hurt
  • We feel sorry for ourselves
  • We want to get back at the person who hurt us
  • We want that person to suffer
  • We take pleasure in thinking how they’ll suffer for what they’ve done
  • We fantasize creative ways for them to suffer
  • We seek revenge against them in subtle or obvious ways

In other words, when we are unable or unwilling to forgive someone, we become angry, bitter, vindictive people. This means that the evil we suffered has its hooks in us. As long as we do not forgive, the evil that was done to us continues to drag down our own soul into the muck and mire of evil, self-pity, anger, and revenge. As long as we harbor bitterness and resentment against those who have wronged us, we can never experience the love and light of true Christianity.

We must always forgive our brothers and sisters, up to seventy-seven times (it could also be translated seventy times seven times), for the good of our own soul. We must always forgive so that we can leave behind the evils of the past, and press onwards and upwards in our spiritual life.

Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat

Does forgiving people for hurting us mean we should let them keep right on hurting us?

No, it does not.

This is another area where many people—even many Christians—seem to have missed the true meaning of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an internal attitude that allows us to stop experiencing bitterness and resentment toward those who have harmed us. Forgiveness is an attitude of mind and heart that allows us to move on toward a better life, unencumbered by old wrongs.

Forgiving people does not mean making ourselves a doormat. It does not mean bending over and taking it from anyone who wants to hurt us or take advantage of us. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not teach that in forgiving others, we should allow them to run roughshod over us again and again. If you find that hard to believe, see the article, “Can Christians be Hardass?

Of course, forgiveness does affect our behavior toward those we have forgiven. We will no longer wish them harm or seek revenge against them. But we must still act intelligently and prudently in dealing with them—especially if it is clear that they are not sorry for what they have done, and that they will do it all over again if they have the opportunity.

Even after we have forgiven someone, we may still wish to see them put behind bars or otherwise punished for what they have done. But that will not be because we haven’t forgiven them. It will be because we want to ensure that they don’t hurt anyone else. We may also seek punishment for them so that they might stop and think about what they have done, perhaps to the point where they repent from their evil and destructive actions. Such repentance would be good for society, and for the perpetrator’s own relationships and spiritual well-being.

You see, for forgiveness to be a two-way street, there must be repentance on the part of those who have done wrong.

Forgiveness alone does not heal a relationship

Forgiveness by itself cannot make things all better again.

It is good for Christians, and for people of other faiths as well, to make it a practice to forgive anyone and everyone who has caused harm. It is not good for our spirit to be carrying the baggage of all sorts of past wrongs. It is better to make peace with our past so that we can have joy in the present and the future.

However, just because we have forgiven someone, that does not mean we will then open our arms to them and re-enter into a close and friendly relationship. As Christians, we must make an effort to follow all of Christ’s teachings, not only the “nice” parts about love and forgiveness. (I’m not saying we will always succeed!)

Here is another one of Christ’s teachings:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

The “innocent as doves” part is about forgiving others and not doing anything that would harm them.

The “shrewd as snakes” part is about being smart, not naïve, in the way we deal with people who would take advantage of us and harm us if they could.

Forgiveness by itself will not heal relationships with people who are not sorry for what they have done. No matter how much we may forgive them for what they have done, if they are not sorry—in other words, if they have not repented from their evil and destructive actions—they will keep right on hurting us and violating our trust, thus destroying the relationship.

It is not Christian to allow and enable others to keep on doing evil, destructive things. Evil is evil because it hurts people. And it is not Christian to stand by and do nothing while people (including ourselves) get hurt.

Repentance: the other side of forgiveness

Here’s an antidote to some of the fuzzy thinking out there about forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness primarily benefits the one doing the forgiving.
  • Forgiveness by itself heals only the person doing the forgiving.

Yes, forgiveness is necessary for the relationship to be healed. If we do not forgive those who have harmed us, we will not allow them back into relationship with us. But forgiveness is only one half of the healing process. And if only half of the relationship is healed, then the relationship itself is not healed.

For a relationship to be healed after one side has harmed the other, not one, but two things must happen:

  1. The one who was harmed must forgive the one who did the harm.
  2. The one who did the harm must repent from the harm done.

In other words, healing a relationship is a two-way street. Yes, forgiveness must flow in one direction. But what so many people miss is that repentance must flow in the other direction.

If the one who harmed the other is not sorry, and does not commit to changing his or her wrong behavior, then the one who was harmed can never trust the other again. And without trust, there can be no healthy and sound relationship.

What exactly is repentance, and how do we do it? That will be the subject of a future article.

For now, I’ll leave you with this:

Repentance: the short version

In the Gospels, the Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, which means “an afterthought, a change of mind upon reflection.” In Biblical terms, repentance means re-thinking the wrong ways we’ve been thinking, feeling, and acting, and changing them.

Repentance is being sorry for what we’ve done. But “being sorry” is not just saying we’re sorry. As nice as it is to apologize to those we’ve hurt, we must also change our attitudes and our behavior. If we turn around and do the same wrong and hurtful things all over again, are we really sorry? Our actions show that we are not.

And while we’re at it, a real apology is not saying that we’re sorry that the other person got hurt. We can say we’re sorry the other person got hurt without admitting that we did anything wrong. A real apology is saying that we’re sorry for the wrong things we ourselves said and did that hurt the other person.

Being truly sorry means changing the way we think, feel, and act so that we no longer do the wrong and harmful things that we used to do. That is repentance. For a practical guide on how to do this, I invite you to read the article, “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?

Yes, as ugly and awkward as repentance may seem, repentance is the true love and inseparable partner of that wonderful beauty, forgiveness.

That is why in the Bible, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples all preached “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (See Mark 1:4; Luke 17:1–4; 24:44–48; Acts 2:38; 5:29–32.)

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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7 comments on “Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness
  1. Barb says:

    Thank you for posting.This is very well said, and backed up with scripture.

  2. Nathan says:

    Nice post, Lee! I think the term forgiveness is fuzzy. Good to make the clear connection with repentance.

  3. ivy1017 says:

    Thank you for this inspiring post, Lee! I’m not sure if it’s strictly related to the subject matter of this article, but may I ask for advice regarding culpability, intents, and resultant impacts? I have a friend who has wronged me, putting my personal safety in jeopardy, said certain extremely hurtful words, and betrayed my trust. However, i know that she did not intend to cause hurt, and was merely doing what she thought was best at the time, and is hence perhaps spiritually on the right track. Nevertheless, her actions have caused much harm. Even though I have largely forgiven her for past acts, I’m unsure about continuing a friendship with her, knowing that she can potentially do something similar again. However, she is presently rather dependent on me for emotional support, and I know that retracting my friendship would hurt (punish?) her a great deal, and I feel that, given that her intents were good, she does not deserve this. What do you think, Lee? Once again, I apologise if this has veered off the subject matter of the article. Thank you so much!

    • Lee says:

      Hi ivy1017,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question. Unfortunately, the system incorrectly identified your comment as spam, and I didn’t realize until today that it had been put in the spam folder.

      Your question is a very good one, and certainly related to this article, even if on a slightly different angle. When people have wronged and hurt us, it affects our relationship with them (and, of course, our life in general) even if they did not intend any harm.

      That’s why even though our intentions are the most important thing, they are not the only important thing. Having a sound understanding of things is also very important. We humans commonly do cause harm to others without intending to precisely because we have wrong or not properly developed notions in our head about how life works.

      Ideally, unintentional wrongs would not end friendships and relationships. But in reality, they often do, either because the harm done is too great to risk continuing that relationship or because damage is done, feelings are hurt, and that breaks the relationship regardless of whether any harm was intended. Your concern seems to be less with hurt feelings than it is with possible further harm if you continue in this relationship.

      Would it be possible for you to have a conversation with your friend about what she said or did, and how it hurt you even if that wasn’t her intent? The best resolution of situations like this is if the person who did the unintentional harm can be made aware of the results of her words or actions, so that she can see and understand that even if she meant no harm, speaking and acting in that way actually is hurtful and damaging. She can then make a choice, with eyes open, not to speak and act that way anymore (even if it may be a struggle to overcome if it is based on long habit.)

      If your friend says or does similar things again, it may be necessary for you to have such a conversation with her if the relationship is to survive. As much as you may want to be an emotional support for her, you can’t continue to do that if the relationship puts you personally in jeopardy of suffering serious harm.

      If you feel you really cannot talk to her about it, then it will likely cause ongoing damage to the relationship. You will always have to be more guarded around her, and will have to protect yourself from suffering similar harm at her hands in the future due to your ongoing relationship. Since I don’t know the exact nature of what she said and did, and the harm it caused, I can’t say anything much more specific than that. Only you are in your own shoes. You’ll have to make your own decisions about what steps you need to take, either to preserve the relationship as best you can or to painfully sever the relationship if you feel that it would be too personally risky to continue it.

      I would suggest that you not think that you must continue the relationship for her wellbeing. It is common for emotionally disturbed people to latch onto others and draw them into feeling that they cannot take any steps to change or end the relationship because the emotionally disturbed person’s life and wellbeing are dependent upon the relationship. Keep in mind that fixing everyone else’s problems is not our job. That’s God’s job. Sometimes it’s best for us to recognize that we are simply not the one to fix this particular problem in another person. Sometimes tough love is very necessary, both for our own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of the other person.

      And one final point related to that. You may be afraid that if you openly confront your friend about what she did, she won’t be able to handle it, and it will cause her harm. But consider the possibility that being confronted with her words and her behavior and their effects may be precisely what she needs in order to move forward and break out of the cycle she is in. “Nice” people commonly think they’re doing favors for others by papering over their wrongs and faults, and not confronting them about things. But even though those others may not want to be confronted about their character flaws and their wrong words and actions, sometimes that is exactly what needs to happen if they are ever to move forward with their life and spiritual growth.

      I would therefore suggest that you seriously consider confronting your friend about what she said and did, and how it hurt you. Her reaction and what she does next will tell you whether or not the friendship can continue.

      But once again, only you are in your shoes. This is a personal decision that you will have to make for yourself, based on your feelings about and understanding of the whole situation.

      Meanwhile, some of the articles linked at the end of this one may give you some further insights into your situation. Annette and I wish you good luck and godspeed facing this situation and moving forward with your life.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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