“I am sorry” can be one of the easiest things to say and one of the hardest things to demonstrate. It can also be exceedingly hard for others to believe. Is a person truly repentant? Do they really feel the weight of what they’ve done? Are they really going to change? It is significant and worthwhile to wrestle with what true repentance looks like. One key sign, however, of true repentance is a person’s increasing understanding of the breadth and depth their sin.
It is not enough to simply say “I am sorry.” True repentance takes time to consider the real nature of sin. A person who wishes simply to forget what happened, to move past it, to avoid consequences, to go back to “life as normal,” is not really repentant. A repentant person seeks to understand the impact of their sin. They are willing to hear from those they have hurt. They refuse to be defensive, to justify their behavior, to blame shift. The evidence humility and brokenness.
One of the most important features of this understanding for repentance is coming to terms with patterns of behavior. Often we may be inclined to repent quickly of a single event, a single failure, a single “lapse in judgment.” The offense, however, runs much deeper. It lies in habitual patterns of sin. Our sin does not arise out of a vacuum. We must understand how deep-seated our responses, attitudes, actions, and thoughts are. We must see how a sin regularly arises from our heart and manifests in a myriads of ways in our lives. One instance of sin may be quickly forgiven and moved on from, but patterns of selfishness, betrayal, anger, and addiction need to be understood before true repentance can come. In this regard we are beginning to understand the depth of our sin. It’s much deeper than this one event, this one action, this one unkind word. It goes all the way to our hearts (Mark 7:20-23), and manifests often in patterns of behavior.
It’s also important that we recognize the breadth of the consequences of our sin. Most individuals can immediately recognize the consequences to themselves. Their sorrow over sin may be really just a sorrow over getting caught, losing something they valued, or being embarrassed. True repentance involves seeking to understand the broader consequences for our whole lives and particularly for those we have hurt. How have others been impacted by my sin? How do they feel? What have I done to damage them or damage our relationship? Without seeking to understand these questions we will always only be dealing with the surface level of our immorality. As I come to understand how my sin has truly harmed others I should seek to echo their sentiments about the pain of my sin. I should seek to put into words their feelings and their hurts. I should communicate that I am beginning to understand how they have been wronged. We never really fully understand how we’ve wronged another, we don’t live in their minds and hearts, and we should avoid saying things like “I understand how you feel.” Rather, attempt to communicate growing knowledge of the pain you’ve caused, and in so doing you will demonstrate humility and true repentance.
There are many more things that we could say about true repentance. We can speak to embracing the consequences of our sins, being teachable, being patient with those we’ve hurt, and more. But repentance is not simply about how we feel, it is about our understanding. I cannot really repent of that which I do not understand. Coming to terms with the depth and breadth of our sin is a vital component of true repentance.