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How To Know IF An Apology Is Sincere

by Bob Russell

Bob Russell1Gleaned from www.bobrussell.org     Written on May 17, 2015

A preacher friend apologized to me last week.  I’ve known him since college and we’ve maintained a fairly close friendship for decades.  But several years ago he abruptly left his wife of over forty years and moved in with a woman in another city.  Several of us who were classmates wrote him and begged him to repent and return to his family.  He didn’t.  Communication ceased.

Now, years later, he requested I talk with him privately.  “I need to ask for your forgiveness,” he pleaded.  “I sinned against God and I know I hurt you by what I did.  My new wife and I are now involved in a church and I want to make things right.  I am really sorry for the way I disappointed you and others.”

What should my reaction be?  While it was great to hear his confession and to renew our relationship, this was not his first offense.  Many years before, there had been another extended affair followed by a return home.  Should I forgive him…again?

Of course the answer is yes.  Jesus said we should forgive our brother seventy times seven.  We are to extend mercy because we have received so much mercy.  So I immediately told him, “Since I want God to forgive my many sins, I am certainly willing to forgive you.”

Maybe a bigger questions is, can I trust him again?  How do we know when a person is genuinely repentant and credible?  That’s not as easily answered.  Forgiveness is difficult but it can be instantaneous.  Trust is more difficult and takes time.  Credibility is earned by a continuous demonstration of reliability.

If a young woman discovers a month before her wedding that her fiancé has been cheating on her, and he begs for forgiveness, she should grant it.  However, if I were her father I don’t think I’d recommend she proceed with the plans to marry him next month.  Trust needs to be earned over time.

How can you tell if someone is really sorry?  Your teenage son gets arrested for a DUI.  He expresses regret, but how soon do you let him drive the car again?  An employee gets caught in a lie.  She apologizes…but how can you tell if she’s really repentant or just sorry she got caught?  A spouse confesses an affair and begs for forgiveness and reinstatement.  How can you know if he or she can be trusted again?

Psalm 51 is a well-known prayer of repentance.  It was King David’s expression of genuine remorse after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba.  The passage discloses several signs by which we can differentiate between, “…godly sorrow that leads to repentance and worldly sorrow that leads to death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

  1. A deep respect for God’s messenger.  David didn’t get angry with Nathan for confronting him.  He didn’t say, “Who does Nathan think he is to accuse me?”  “Don’t judge or you will be judged!”  Although he had the power to punish Nathan, David accepted the prophet’s rebuke and continued to respect his spiritual leadership (1 Kings 1:32).
  2. An open admission of the facts.  David didn’t call his relationship with Bathsheba a, “dalliance” or “an affair”.  He said, “I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me” (v. 3).  Worldly sorrow discloses only that which is necessary but continues to cover up hidden sins.  Godly sorrow tells the whole truth.  “Surely, you desire truth in the inner parts,” David acknowledged (v. 6).
  3. A humble sense of spiritual unworthiness.  “Against you, and you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). David didn’t flippantly say, “I’m not perfect, but we’re all sinners and I’m under God’s grace.”  He admitted he deserved God’s judgment.
  4. A genuine spirit of contrition. Worldly sorrow regrets that it got caught and seeks to blame others.  Real repentance accepts full responsibility for the wicked behavior; the heart is broken and usually tears flow.  David speaks of being crushed and losing his joy.  “A broken and contrite spirit, O God, you will not despise” (v. 17).
  5. A hunger for God’s blessing and reinstated fellowship.   David didn’t say, “I’ll never return to the temple, I’m too embarrassed to face people again.”  He forgot self and hungered for God’s blessing on his life.  He pleaded for a pure heart and promised he would once again sing of God’s righteousness.
  6. A willingness to wait for restored influence.  David didn’t demand immediate reinstatement to leadership.  He apparently anticipated and understood people’s skepticism.  He humbly said, “Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.  Then I will teach transgressors your ways.”  He seemed willing to wait until, in God’s timing, he had regained credibility.  Then he could lead again.

David’s repentance was evident by the fact that he swallowed his ego and put God’s will above selfish desires.  As a result God cleansed and restored him.  For, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).


Bob Russell is Retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY


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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4