I can imagine a scenario where a wife challenges her husband on some sort of hurtful word or action, for some aspect of laziness, or maybe for some sort of self-destructive behavior. In that scenario her husband responds, not with careful thought and reflection and then an apology that fits the actual sin, but with a number of critical remarks about her. Either that or he thinks up a number of excuses or self-justifications. Of course, the reason that I can imagine this scenario, is because I have been in this scenario.
Marriage maximizes the struggles that happen between Christians as well. Marriage, when done rightly, can actually be the most important battle ground for interpersonal conflict between Christians. To put it another way, it is rare that there will be a culture of repentance in the Church if there is no culture of repentance in marriages and in the Christian home.
So what do I mean by ‘a culture of repentance’? I will simply define culture here as: “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization” (link). It is a way of life, and each community is either getting better at it or worse at it.
The Apostle Peter calls on men and women to repent to the Lord: “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts 3:19) King David confesses his sin first before God: “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.” (Psalm 38:18) But Christian repentance does not only happen before God but also before His image bearers. The Apostle James emphasizes this in his excursus on the Christian life and life together as a Christian community: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)
Repentance, of course, involves both words and actions. It can involve a very simple formula “I am sorry, I have done you wrong.” Speaking in Biblical terms, repentance also involves a u-turn, a transformation in action. It means: “to repent, to change any or all of the elements composing one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviors concerning the demands of God for right living” (link). Repentance is not just self-centered grief, but it is a godly grief: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11)
In order to work towards a culture of repentance we should also recognize the attitudes and values that characterize a culture of unrepentance.
If I am the one being approached, there are certain words and actions that discourage a culture of repentance. While these words may indeed be true and can be brought out at an appropriate time, red herrings, like “you are too sensitive” or “you are reading into things,” are more often than not inappropriate at the moment of conflict. Rather than the more appropriate act of self-reflection and the act of taking the log out of my own eye before I take the speck out of the other’s, I fixate on the speck in other’s so that I can ignore the log in my own. I capitalize on the weakness and emotional vulnerability of the other, so that I can avoid any sort of repentance and real change in my own life. My pride, my selfishness, is all that matters.
But the principle of taking the log out of my own eye first, is also important in confronting a sin. In any sort of confrontation, Christians struggle with impure motives and often lack self-reflection. King David was perhaps one of the more confrontational characters of Scripture, and yet he says in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
King David says in Psalm 7:12 “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow;” Obviously, if things are not right with God, then they will not be right with men. But having made things right with God, He is also in the process of renewing our relationships with our brothers and sisters. Sometimes that renewal must wait until heaven, but some of the most humbling times of my short life have been when I have seen Christians recognize their own sin and reconcile with one another. Even more humbling is when I recognize my own sin and have to apologize to a brother or sister.
Much more could be said about apologizing for actual sin, hyper-sensitivity, etc. But here I want to say that a culture of repentance also gives rise to a culture of forgiveness. Christians can suffer the harsh judgements of some Christians in expectation of the forgiveness of God and in hope of a healthier environment of repentance within the church. These are not easy issues, but they are necessary to wrestle with.