Interpersonal Repentance:  When “I’m sorry” Isn’t Enough

Because ministry leaders are human beings, we will inevitably do and say things that hurt others and create tears in our ministry or family relationships. When tears happen, repair should follow. A good confession is a great start to repair a relationship tear (see January 2022 Thrive in Five). If the offense is minor, a good confession may suffice to close the gap. However, deeper wounds require more than basic repair. Deeper wounds occur when a breach of trust happens and an “injured party” experiences a “wrongdoer” as untrustworthy.* Too often we place a burden on the injured party to “trust” when wrongdoers have done little to reestablish trustworthiness beyond saying “I’m sorry.” Rebuilding trustworthiness takes time. Wrongdoers need to transform repair into interpersonal repentance. Interpersonal repentance is the wrongdoer’s commitment to consistent changed behavior over time. Interpersonal repentance reflects our character as followers of Christ and reveals our commitment to maintaining unity in the body of Christ (Eph. 3: 1-6; John 17:20-23). In other words, interpersonal repentance is a process that involves commitment to sustained behavioral change rather than a one-time verbal apology without any action to back it up.

Here are five key principles that will help you to engage in the process of interpersonal repentance:

  1.  Interpersonal repentance involves changed behavior over time. Repentance requires wrongdoers to turn away from the thoughts, words, and actions that led to violations of trust, and to actively, wholeheartedly, and consistently turn toward attitudes and activities that reestablish their trustworthiness. Pray for faithfulness, perseverance, and endurance to demonstrate consistent changed behavior over time. 
  2. Interpersonal repentance requires humility. Humility is a moral emotion that opens our eyes to our contribution to the relationship breach. Humility supports seeing ourselves as capable of hurting another. It also allows us to set aside self-justifications by acknowledging our guilt. Humility does not require shame-based humiliation and groveling to own your part of the problem. See Eph. 4:1-3; Phil. 2:3-4. Pray for Godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10) and the humility to name rightly your contribution to the relationship tear. 
  3. Interpersonal repentance requires empathy. Empathy is a moral emotion that opens our eyes to how our action negatively affected another. Empathy allows us to understand and credit the other person’s experience and perspective and to identify with him/her emotionally. If you struggle to see the hurtful event in a different way, try adopting the role of a neutral, independent observer who is viewing the relationship event without the defensive emotions that are typically included with the story. See James 1:21. Pray for the courage to “try on” the other person’s perspective. How well can you re-narrate the event from the perspective of the injured party? What part of his/her experience can you acknowledge, credit, and affirm? 
  4. Interpersonal repentance requires accountability. Accountability is the interpersonal process where wrongdoers engage in consistent changed behavior over time, specifically behaviors that relate to the breach of trust. It is the interpersonal version of Jesus’ command to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). Accountability can include making amends – literally or symbolically. Merely saying “you can trust me” to the injured part will not work. Our actions speak louder than our words. See Col 3:8-10. What do you need to do to begin to show yourself to be trustworthy again? If you have identified a relationship that needs repair, list the injury-specific things you can do to demonstrate your intent to restore trust. 
  5. Expect roadblocks and detours. Holding oneself accountable is hard work. The person you offended does not believe that your change will be long lasting. Or injured parties may not be interested or ready to rebuild the relationship because of how deeply they were hurt. Furthermore, wrongdoers may slip-up in ways that set back relationship repair. You may want to invite an accountability partner (not the person you offended) to help you stay the course you have set for yourself in the face of these kinds of obstacles. Who can come alongside you to help you sustain your changed behavior when the going gets rough?

To learn more about interpersonal repentance, see the following resources:

Virginia Todd Holeman, Chapter 6 “Seeking Forgiveness” in Reconcilable Differences: Hope and Healing for Troubled Marriages, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004.

Aaron Lazare, Chapter 4, “Acknowledging the Offense” and Chapter 5, “Remorse, Explanations, and Reparation” in On Apology, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Chapter 10 “Discussion” in Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

From NPR, Simran Sethi & Clarie Marie Schneider: You’re Apologizing All Wrong: Here’s How to Say Sorry the Right Way

Effective Apologies Include Six Elements, May 24, 2016 by Association for Psychological Science.

Relational contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle