I have been using Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas’s book The Five Languages of Apology to think about penitence during the Christian calendar season of Lent.
To recap, the authors have said that a sincere apology may need to include regret or remorse. You say, “I am sorry.” But it may also need to include taking responsibility. You say, “I was wrong.” And in my last post on the book I talked about their contention that a true apology may need to include restitution. You say, “How can I make it right?”
Today I pick up the fourth of their five points. A true apology may need to include an assurance that you will not make a habit of repeating the offense. This change of lifestyle is repentance in its basic meaning of change or transformation. You say, “I want to change.”
This element of penitence comes forward especially when there is a flaw in your personality or character underlying your behavior. You may have told a lie. But is the problem that you are a dishonest person? You got mad. But are you a person who is consumed with anger? You got drunk. But do you have an underlying addiction?
The person you apologize to needs to know that you want to deal not only with a single incident that has offended them, but that you want to change the pattern and style of your life. The more of a committed relationship you are in with the one you hurt, the more important this is. They will want assurance that you are going to change.
Now I am applying this to penitence toward God. I think a lot of us get down on ourselves because we have promised God that we would change–and then we have failed. The old term for this is backsliding. Part of the problem is that people tend to think that religion works for most people the way it works for those few who have a dramatic conversion. Those people change in a moment.
I am pretty sure that does happen. But it is not my experience and it is not the experience of most of the people I have worked with. We repent over and over as we fail and struggle. Lent needs to come around every year. That is pretty much the way it also works in marriage and other relationships. It is never settled so that you don’t have to sweat it anymore.
So I am glad that Chapman and Thomas say that part of the apology should be a request that the other party have patience. You may say, “I really want to change, but please have patience with me. I realize that I may slip.”
They stress that more important than not slipping up is having a plan to change. For instance, if your problem is your temper, then the key is to catch yourself as you begin to become angry and to have a plan about what you are going to do to deal with and manage your emotions.
I do not for a moment deny that there is mystery and divine power behind people’s lives changing. Christians name this the Holy Spirit. But even the Holy Spirit does not change you against your will. So the penitent says, “I want to change.” This is an essential opening to mystery and spiritual power. But the penitent may also say, “Lord, have patience with me as I seek and plan to change.”