How do you react when you’ve done something wrong? Do you settle for “Oops!”? Or, “Sorry, my bad”? Pretend it didn’t happen? Blame someone else?
Little wrongs, like accidentally bumping into someone, spilling your coffee, or being late for a meeting, aren’t that big a deal. A quick apology and it’s all good. But what about the times when the magnitude of your wrongdoing can’t be glossed over so quickly? What then?
Chances are you choose one of three options. You’ve heard of the “three R’s” of basic education – readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic? (At least I think they still teach those things in our schools.) There are also three R’s after wrongdoing: Regret. Remorse. Repentance.
It’s often hard to say, “I was wrong” or “I am sorry.” We don’t like to admit we’re wrong. We resent being found out, and if possible, might try to ignore or cover up any wrongdoing. Some of the folks we elect to serve us in Washington, D.C. – on both sides of the aisle – seem adept at the latter.
But what about when wrongdoing is indisputable, our hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar? Do we settle for regret, wallow in remorse, or choose to repent? Each starts with the letter “r,” but that’s where the similarity ends.
When aware we’ve done wrong, feeling some measure of regret is common. “Wish I hadn’t done that.” Like when we misjudge the distance to the car behind us in the parking lot and suddenly hear, “Crunch!” Or put our mouth in gear while our brain is still in park, and say something we quickly wish we could retract. Unfortunately, in oral communications, retractions rarely work.
Other times we feel more than regret – we’re overcome with remorse. Perhaps an action (or series of actions) destroys a relationship. Or a dishonest or unethical act ruins a career and darkens a once bright future. Consequences of the wrongdoing command our attention, immersing us in self-pity.
Lastly, there’s repentance, compelling us to seek to make right what went wrong, accept responsibility, and resolve not to follow that path again. After acknowledging the effects of a harmful habit, negative behavior, or even malicious thought patterns, a moment comes when “I’m sorry” is no longer enough. Genuine, lasting change is required.
Two things the Bible talks about a lot are sin – and repentance. Most of us are familiar with sin, at least to some degree. It’s part of our spiritual DNA, traced back to Adam, and comes naturally. To repent and turn to God in sincere repentance does not.
The Scriptures offer a contrast between remorse and repentance in Judas and Peter, two of Jesus Christ’s closest followers. Both betrayed Him, but their responses afterward made all the difference. An eternal difference.
The gospels offer accounts of Judas betraying Christ. Matthew 27 states it gained him 30 pieces of silver. Judas led a crowd to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he boldly identified Him for the arresting officials. The gospels show Peter guilty of a different form of betrayal. He and another disciple, John, had followed Jesus, standing nearby during His mock trial. Then, as Jesus predicted, Peter denied Him three times when confronted about being among His followers.
The degree of the betrayals might have been different, but both were betrayals.
What’s important is what the men did next. Judas, remorseful for what he had done, returned the money to the priests – then hanged himself. Swallowed up in self-pity over what he had done, he chose to end the pain by committing suicide.
The other disciple, however, responded very differently. Distraught over having verbally betrayed his great friend, Peter fled from the scene but later reconnected with the remaining disciples. Broken by his own cowardice, Peter was no longer the brash, impulsive person he once was.
In the last chapter of the gospel of John, we see repentant Peter humbly interacting with the resurrected Christ. Shorn of bold declarations, Peter no longer was inclined to promise what he might not be able to keep. But in a wonderful demonstration of grace and mercy, Jesus restored the man He had nicknamed “the rock,” telling him, “Feed my sheep…. Follow me!” (John 21:15-19).
What the Lord expects of us often is not what we expect. We think in terms of impressive service, or lavish material contributions to advance His kingdom. But Psalm 51:17 states plainly what He desires: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
When we sin, our lives going off track, the Lord is just as eager to restore us as He was Peter. But He doesn’t want regret; nor is remorse enough. Repentance is what He’s after.