Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cheap Repentance Isn't Repentance

by: Katie

There's a lot of talk these past few years of repentance and forgiveness, particularly as it concerns high profile Christian leaders such as Josh Duggar and Tulian Tchividian, but also relating back as far as Bill Gothard, the Bob Jones GRACE Report, Jim Berg, R. C. Sproul, Sovereign Grace, and many other delicate situations of the past few years.  It's become nearly formulaic in the pattern that these situations follow.  Pretty much anyone who has followed enough of them could predict how the next one will turn out. Deny. Exposed. "Repent" in public. Damage control. Lie low. Move onto new ministry/job. Wait two years. Deny.

Sadly, while many of these situations vary in their specifics, the general response to each remains pretty much the same.  No matter what is revealed a large majority of people consider any apology sufficient (even when it blames the victim or is full of conditional statements).  They don't take into account the fact that the apology only came once the crimes/sins were exposed by someone else.  They don't take into account the fact that they are focusing all their energies and compassion on the perpetrator rather than the victim(s).  They want to move on as quickly as possible and simultaneously pretend it's not happening.  But there's a lot we could say about how people respond to public apologies.  What I find most troubling in this trend is throwing around Christianese buzzwords like "repentance" and "forgiveness" without actually seeing any reality behind it.

For example, I see a lot of people claim they've repented and demand everyone else's forgiveness.  However, their claims are not backed up by any action, and they just use those words to marginalize the true victims of their actions.  A half-hearted "I'm sorry if you felt that I might have hurt you..." is a sign of someone refusing to take responsibility, not a sign of true repentance.  It's sad to see so many people today who demand we grant "forgiveness" (i.e. stop holding these people and institutions accountable for their actions) because of what they view as repentance, but is this really repentance?  Here are a few tips for spotting cheap repentance after a scandal breaks:

1. Perpetrator's "apology" references his pain and how the situation affects him more than anyone else.

2. The perpetrator categorically denies any wrongdoing until it is revealed by someone else and there is no choice.

3. Public apology is full of conditional modifiers (such as: I'm sorry if you felt I did something wrong) rather than actually apologizing for real wrongdoing.

4. Apology blames the victims and makes the perpetrator a victim of circumstances.

5. Perpetrator and supporters try to quiet victims and dissenters from being honest about past issues by playing the "bitterness" card.

Genuine Repentance

I could list more, but I think it's more productive in the long run to try to describe what genuine repentance should look like rather than give examples of all the people featuring cheap repentance right now.

Genuine repentance grieves for the victims more than the loss of reputation or position.  This looks like a pastor who is more heartbroken over the pain and hurt he has caused his victims, his God, and his family and church than he is about holding on to his pulpit or reputation.  It should not require someone else to break the news to the church.  Someone who is truly repentant will confess instead of trying to cover it up and get away with it

True repentance acknowledges personal responsibility without making the entire situation about himself.  It is important to take responsibility for your actions, but it does not mean that every statement and every sentence needs to center on you, your actions, and your feelings.  Not every situation is about you.  This makes me continue to wonder about ministries where the first response is always self-preservation rather than concern for the victims.

Real repentance works toward restoration.  This can be tricky, because it looks so different to different people. This does not always mean a restored relationship, especially in cases of abuse.  Sometimes transparency is the best you can achieve in those cases.  However, on a very general level, you could say that for an institution that has hurt entire generations of students, it will take a lot more effort and public transparency than for one person who has injured one other person in private.  This is more than just words.  Saying you want reconciliation is not enough, you need to actually put action to that desire.  If they are wounded from your actions, you should be the first to support their process of healing.  Sadly, we are seeing the opposite for many Christians who have been devastated by leaders or institutions or churches.  Once they are wounded they are outcasts, troublemakers, lepers.  Whatever it takes to preserve the group mentality.  That group or leader is the last one to support their recovery, but true repentance demands that we support the recovery of victims.

This might seem basic, but from the way things are going I will say it anyway.  True repentance stops hurting people.  This should be self-evident, but apparently it's not to everyone.  When you realize you're hurting people, you should stop.  How do you know if you're hurting people? One simple way is when multiple people come to you with no apparent ulterior motive and tell you that you are or that you have in the past.  If you don't stop, we are not going to believe you have legitimately repented.  We will quite simply not take anything you say seriously again.

There's a lot more to say about this.  It seems like there always is.  But perhaps you can pause for a moment and see why sometimes just issuing a public "apology" isn't actual proof of repentance, it's just proof that you got caught.  It is not fair to demand blanket forgiveness from victims and at the same time shield their perpetrators from accountability.

Cheap repentance is not repentance, and too often cheap repentance is all we're being offered.  Let's stop bartering in cheap repentance.  Let's stop accepting that as proof of a changed life and start holding leaders, institutions, churches, and ourselves accountable for actions.  It's time someone did.  

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