From Sorry to Change (Part 1)
In one of my previous blog posts, the topic of forgiveness was discussed. The conclusion was that not only are we commanded to forgive others, but that we benefit from doing so. One of the issues that often arises from the topic of forgiveness is reconciliation. In the post titled, “To Forgive or Not to Forgive,” I discussed the difference between the two, noting that just because we forgive someone, doesn’t mean that reconciliation will necessarily follow. Unfortunately, folks are often stifled to even begin the process of forgiveness out of a belief that if they forgive, they will also be mandated to maintain a relationship with someone they do not trust.
Now let's look at what makes it possible to move from forgiveness into the process of reconciliation. The only way to restore a right relationship between two people and between ourselves and God, is through what is called repentance. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, repent is a verb, which means "to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life and to feel regret or contrition, to change one's mind." Notice, the definition is not described as merely a feeling of sorrow alone. It's a verb, an action that is taken, in which we actually turn and head in another direction! So when someone says, "I'm sorry," but continues to behave in the same manner, that is NOT repentance and although forgiveness is possible, reconciliation is not.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the eight steps that characterize repentance. These "steps" are referred to as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). For today's purposes, we will take a look at the first four and how they function as a guide of what it looks like to truly repent.
"God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs." Matthew 5:3
The absolute first step in repentance is that we recognize and admit that we are utterly bankrupt and don't have what it takes to change on our own. I once heard it said that we need to come to a place where we can honestly say, "I have nothing, I am nothing, and I can do nothing apart from Christ." It's not some temporary feeling that we later shake off and then "take back the wheel," but rather we must resign to live in that place of submission and dependence. This, like all of the steps to follow are quite countercultural and counterintuitive, but keep in mind that God is cool like that.
"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine." (Isaiah 55:8)
Anyone who is familiar with substance abuse programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), may be thinking, "Hey, this sure sounds a lot like Step 1 in AA, where you admit that you are powerless to change and recognize the need for a 'higher power'!" That would be because it was taken straight from scripture and used by AA. The originally Christian-based program brought about such great results that the secular world took note and adopted it, kicking Christ right out, and claiming that anything could be your "higher power," you know, a coffee cup or an old sock, whatever floats your boat, but I digress...
Why do we see so many people, including ourselves, feeling terrible about the things we've said or done, yet we find ourselves repeating the same awful and frustrating patterns over and over again? One reason is because we may be trying to change all on our own, without acknowledging our deep need for God's help and power in our lives.
"God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Matthew 5:4
The "mourning" that Jesus is referring to isn't the type of mourning over the loss of a loved one. This means to mourn or grieve over your sin, to be truly sorrowful and emotionally pained over the damage you've done and whatever pain you've caused to others. This is not self-pity. Oftentimes, what may initially appear as sorrow, is revealed to be a self-focused regret, a sadness over the loss of your reputation or of being caught and in a situation of no escape from other's knowing your guilt. This is not the kind of mourning referred to here. We must acknowledge the pain and grief we've caused and be willing to be the first to cite our list of transgressions against those we've wounded.
Today, my husband is a Godly man and I am proud to call him my beloved. However, there was a time in our lives that divorce papers were signed and our marriage was utterly destroyed. With much sweetness, I can recall when my husband had reached a place of true repentance and willingness to change. One of the most distinguishing features that was obviously different from past times of simply, "I'm sorry," was when he sat down and listed all of the ways that his behaviors had hurt me. It demonstrated to me that he had really taken the time to meditate on the damage he'd done and the pain he'd caused. He'd given it more than a self-focused glance. He was willing to go there, to enter into that dark and ugly place that he had created and was willing to sit with me there and grieve with me. Wow! How different is that from just, "I'm sorry?" He didn't turn the focus on himself and wallow in self-pity, which certainly had characterized past futile attempts to reconcile. No, he grieved and mourned over the damage his sin had caused.
"God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth." Matthew 5:5
This step is no less important than the first two. I believe that this is the step that leads to the maintenance of change in our lives. Remember how I said that we so often find ourselves or others, saying sorry, but then doing the same hurtful things over and over again? This step changes that pattern. To humble ourselves means to lay down our will. Our will is what got us in trouble in the first place, is it not? We are willing to come under the authority/will of another, namely, God. If we are honestly admitting Step 1, then it's foolishness to think we can manage our own lives well. This confession lends itself to humility and a desire to obey God's ways of doing things. Humility says, "I don't know best, but God does."
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Matthew 5:6
Have you ever been lost? It's not an easy thing to do these days with smart phones and GPS systems. However, if you've ever been lost, you know how quickly you become desperate to find your way. Your desire to find accurate directions becomes your primary and sole focus. This step gives evidence to the previous steps workings. 1) When we acknowledge that we are incapable of change on our own 2) and have mourned the damage that we've done 3) and realize that His ways and will are superior to our own, then we naturally begin to desire His direction in our lives (step 4). There will be evidence of our hunger for His direction.
Practically speaking, this means that we will desire to read His word, hear His word, and be around like minded people who also love Him and His word. As we nourish our "hunger and thirst," our hearts and minds are transformed---changed!
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." 2 Corinthians 5:17
"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will." Romans 12:2
So if you're wondering how to know the difference between sorry and change, look for these signs that point to reconciliation being possible.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll explore the second half of the Beatitudes and their relationship to repentance.