Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness

If the 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, less than a minute into this segment from Letterman that aired 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:


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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15 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.

  4. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    I think it’s safe to say that when we reflect on our sins, we should, as part of the process of repentance and forgiveness, feel remorseful and regretful for our actions- in effect, to feel bad about them.

    But are all sins essentially resistible, in some way? We’re not perfect, and we all would seem to have a breaking point. If you dangle temptation long enough and alluringly enough in someone’s face, it seems like there’s no level of will-power in the world that can prevent that person from breaking. Sometimes I wonder if there are times where we just don’t have it in us to say ‘no.’

    In The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio’s character makes something of effort to resist cheating on his wife with a beautiful model who has invited him into her apartment. As he muster up the will power to remain faithful and is about to leave the apartment, the model walks out in a set of revealing lingerie, and DiCaprio just caves on the spot. While having committed adultery, most men would at least in some way empathize with his predicament. Who could resist something like that, right?

    My question from all of this is: if due to our fallen nature it’s just impossible for us to resist a certain level of temptation, how can we bring ourselves to feel bad and remorseful about it? When we repent and ask forgiveness for sins, we need to first feel bad about them, but it’s hard to feel bad about succumbing to things that, in a way, doesn’t seem like our fault.

    That also seems like a total cop out when it come to personal responsibility, but I’m trying to work on understanding why, and I’m having trouble working it out. Can you shed some light on this?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      All of this is why we regenerate in stages, and not all at once.

      There are many evil desires and tendencies within us that we are simply not ready to resist and overcome, and that we will therefore engage in. And when we do, we are not condemned for them even though those actions are evil because at this point in our lives we simply don’t have the spiritual strength, maturity, and capacity to face and overcome them. God therefore allows us to have a blind eye toward them, and not seriously consider that they are wrong and evil and we shouldn’t do them.

      What God does, rather, when we set out on a path of spiritual growth, or regeneration, is open our eyes to wrong thoughts, desires, and actions that we currently are capable of facing, resisting, and banishing from our active life. At first these will probably be relatively small and superficial things that are obvious wrongs, and that cause us obvious problems. Such as continually oversleeping and being late for work. Really, it’s just a matter of setting the alarm and getting up when it goes off. Simple, and easy to overcome once we have the will to do so. (Assuming we don’t have some sort of sleep disorder.) Before long, getting up on time and showing up for work on time will become our habit and custom, and we’ll wonder why it was ever a problem.

      As we face and overcome these simpler wrongs in our life, we gradually build up the strength of character that will be required to face and deal with our more deep-seated evil thoughts, desires, and actions. And it is only when we do have the ability to face and overcome them that God fully opens our eyes to them as evils in ourselves. Before that, God would merely be setting us up for failure. And failing to overcome an evil once we clearly see that it is evil is worse than not recognizing it as evil at all.

      So yes, we should feel bad and remorseful about our wrongs. But that is useful only if we currently have the ability to face them, fight them, and be victorious in the struggle. Before we have developed the strength to do that, feeling bad and remorseful for the evil in our character and life serves no useful purpose, but only tears us up emotionally over things that we currently have no power to change.

      This, I believe, is why many people who are engaged in obviously evil actions are allowed to feel no guilt and remorse about them. It would serve no purpose.

      And of course, people who have not made a conscious decision to reform themselves and take a spiritual path will never feel any real guilt or remorse about their actions. What they may think of, or what may appear as, guilt or remorse is merely a fear of getting caught, or anguish at being punished for their behavior. But the fact of the matter is that they don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong, they don’t feel sorry or guilty for it, and if there weren’t the threat of punishment, they would continue acting freely in those wrong and harmful ways without any pangs of conscience at all. In fact, they have no conscience. Only a fear of punishment and of loss of money, power, reputation, and so on.

      This is also why the threat of punishment, and actual punishment, is the only thing that restrains people of evil will from breaking out into flagrant evil and criminal behavior all the time. It is also why children must be punished when they do wrong, until they can develop a conscience of their own that serves as an internal restraint on engaging in evil and harmful actions. (But of course, the punishment should be careful and measured, and not draconian or repressive or humiliating and crushing of their emotional life.)

      Back to the main point, if we do not at the current time have the power to resist a certain evil, then feeling guilty about it and beating ourselves up about it serves no useful purpose. In the case of adultery committed when we are seduced into it, we may very well not have the ability to resist it at that time in our lives. And though it is still wrong, and can have disastrous consequences, such as the destruction of our marriage, assuming that we do recognize that what we did wasn’t right, and make the effort to build up our character to the point where we can resist it, that sort of thing will not be charged against us spiritually precisely because when it happened we were not in a state of freedom and rationality sufficient to resist it.

      Further, though it is true that many men simply don’t have the capacity to resist such open seduction, many other men do have that capacity. And that’s not, as is commonly charged by men still in the grip of their animal drives, because those men are somehow deficient in their sexual drives and capabilities. Rather, it is because they have developed morally and spiritually to the point where engaging in adulterous affairs no longer has any allure for them, but rather strikes them as horrible and dirty, and not desirable or pleasurable at all. These are commonly men who love their wives and are devoted to their marriage, and who find their joy in the relationship of marriage, and not in mere sex for the sake of physical gratification.

      However, achieving that state commonly requires maturity and years of engaging in a spiritually growing marriage relationship. For many young men, it is simply beyond their current spiritual and moral level. They have not yet developed the strength of character to be able to see a beautiful and seductive woman coming on to them and not have an overpowering desire to sleep with her.

      This, I suspect, is what David was reflecting upon when he wrote:

      Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
      according to your steadfast love remember me,
      for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
      (Psalm 25:7)

  5. Griffin says:

    Great post, and one which is especially significant during this “Me Too” movement.

  6. Sara Smith says:

    Hi there Lee,

    I’ve been doing a rather intense study of your writings over the past week and I feel like this discussion is as good as any to get your insight and clarification…

    You see, I’ve always struggled with the “Honor your mother and father” part of the commandments. My father and I had an okay relationship, but my mother and I have always struggled. She’s an alcoholic, but refuses to see it. I understand the why of it: she lost her 4 year old son a few years prior to my birth; I’ve not been informed of the particulars of this, but I’ve been led to understand that this was likely due to a moment of negligence on her part. As such, the drinking makes sense, due to the guilt, but it doesn’t make it any easier growing up.

    After a person’s death, one tends to forget/gloss over the negative memories and instead focus on the positives. She did this quite a bit about my brother when I was growing up, and I struggled with feeling like I was less than him due to the permanence of his innocence. IT may seem a bit selfish to say, and maybe it is, but it made it hard for me growing up in that environment, like nothing I could do was good enough.

    Eventually, my father passed away, and I was old enough to move out on my own. I was harboring a lot of anger and resentment towards my mother, and we had a strained relationship for over a decade. Now, though, she’s been living with me and my family for almost 3 years. It was really hard at first, but has since gotten easier, despite the fact that she doesn’t see a problem with her drinking. We’ve discussed my feelings about my childhood and, while she doesn’t see a problem with her behavior, he has apologized. Similarly, though I’ve told her I’m okay with my past and love her anyway, it’s not entirely the truth.

    After reading your article, though, I feel like I’m a lot closer to forgiveness than I thought. Which is good for me. But the part about repentance and forgiveness going hand in hand, I worry about her. I feel as if she has not really forgiven herself for what she’s done, nor has she forgiven anyone else that has wronged her. She sits, mired in the negatives of her past and refuses to forgive. She would say she has, probably, but the way she speaks of her past tells me otherwise.

    I would like her to find some peace, especially as she gets older. I would like to see her forgive others, as well as herself, to where she could get some help with her drinking. I realize this is a lot of family history (and drama), but you seem to possess a great deal of good advise and information. I’m not really good at talking with her, nor with any confrontation, so I’m pretty useless at talking to her, but I worry about her placement in heaven. I know she’s got a lot of demons to overcome, and I hope that she can beat them before her soul is set in stone, so to speak. Is there anything you could suggest to help bring some peace to her (and even me)?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for your comment, and for telling your story. I’m glad the articles here have been helpful to you. Yours is a complicated situation, as I’m sure you’re aware. That’s what happens with family and close friends. Issues, experiences, and attitudes that various family members have and develop over time cause friction and even conflict. Those conflicts aren’t always easily resolved, and sometimes they are never resolved.

      At the most basic level, any real and permanent change in your mother’s state of mind and heart can come about only if she makes a conscious decision of her own to do the work of making those changes. Outside intervention can sometimes ameliorate things. But we are human beings with free will. This means that we hold our spiritual fate in our own hands. No one else can make the decisions or take the steps for us. Alcoholics can give up alcohol only if they make their own decision to change, and do the hard work of making that change in their life.

      This means that although you may indeed be able to help your mother, unless she thinks she needs help, or needs to change, any changes in her brought about by your influence will be superficial rather than deep. She may change her behavior to accommodate you and her new living situation in your family’s house, but inwardly she will still think and feel the same way. If you have any idea that you should be able to “fix” your mother, it would be best to throw that out the window. You’ll need recognize the reality that she will make her own decisions about whether she wishes to face or even acknowledge the demons of her past.

      If she makes the decision to face them, she still has time to do the hard work of forgiving herself and others. Over time this could result in her no longer feeling the need to turn to alcohol to self-medicate and avoid facing her inner demons.

      If she is unwilling to face those demons and do the hard work of overcoming them, no amount of outside intervention will bring that about.

      It’s a classic case of, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.” You can tell your mother what you see, and what you think, and even what you think she needs to do. But then it’s up to her whether to actually do anything about it. If she decides she just doesn’t want to, all you can do is make the best of your time with her, and make sure to set your boundaries for yourself and your family so that she is clear what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable while she’s living in your house. For better or for worse, she is your guest now. Just as when you were young you had to abide by the rules of the house, so she must abide by the rules of your house as long as she continues to live with you. I realize this can be difficult because she is your mother. But you are both grown adults now. It is no longer her job to monitor and correct your behavior as it was when you were a child. You are now responsible for your own life and actions, as she is for hers.

      If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend that you read this article:

      Can I be Saved if I Hate my Mother?

      It deals with a more extreme case than yours, but the same general principles apply.

      There is more I could say, but I’ll leave it at this for now. If you have further thoughts or questions please feel free to continue the conversation.

      • Sara Smith says:

        Hi again Lee,

        I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful response. I hadn’t run across your “Can I be Saved if I Hate my Mother?” article yet, but after reading it, I feel a little more at peace with our (sometimes) difficult relationship.

        I think the biggest problem I have is that I’m one of those people that wants to help/change other people that are hurting or otherwise doing not so good things. It’s nearly impossible to fix addiction, though, for the very reasons you said: they have to want it, too.

        I’m sure I’ll have more to say to you on other topics in the future, but for now, I’m satisfied. Thanks again for your kind words and wisdom.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Sara,

          Glad to hear that my response, and that article, were helpful to you. Yes, it is very hard for “fixers” to stand by and watch someone continually not fixing their life. If nothing else, it is a lesson in patience and humility.

          Now consider God watching the lives of billions of human beings here on earth, wanting to give every single one of us peace, happiness, and joy, and having so many of us stubbornly and stupidly reject it. Personally, I’m glad I’m not God. I would definitely not have that kind of patience! 😀

          Meanwhile, you are most welcome. I’ll look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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