How to Turn Repentance Into a Non-Apology Apology

It seems to be an almost daily occurrence on the news.

A public figure has done or said something that crosses a significant moral line for many people. They try to make a statement that expresses contrition (to satisfy those feeling aggrieved) while not actually admitting any wrongdoing (thus retaining their public credibility). This solution is the non-apology apology, or the faux-pology, the posture of “sorry not sorry.” They’ll say, “I’m sorry that people were offended by what I did,” or “mistakes were made.” There’s a sense of sorrow, but not anything coming close to acknowledging concrete wrongdoing. 

It’s such a common response to accusations of wrongdoing that we may even start doing it instinctively. It can be a reflex any time someone raises a grievance with us. And therefore it can be a reflex when it comes to God, too. Inevitably, spending time in Scripture will expose us to God’s call to repentance. Jesus himself said the proper response to his coming was to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). A non-apology apology seems to cut it with many people; might it also cut it with God?

But if we’re trying to express contrition, while actually remaining defensive in our heart, we are actually failing to repent. True repentance is deep sorrow, not an appearance of sorrow that doesn’t lead to any genuine change. A non-apology apology might defuse a situation with someone else; it will do nothing to get God off our case.

King David gives us a clear example of this. He had sinned seriously by summoning Bathsheba to sleep with him, thus sinning against her and her husband (whom he later had killed). David comes to terms with this in Psalm 51

If we want to avoid true repentance and hide behind a non-apology apology, then we’ll need to do the opposite of what we see David doing here. We’ll need to do four things.

1. Don’t call sin sin.

David admits what he’s done is sinful. Not just unideal or imperfect, but actually wrong. A real ethical line exists. and David knows he has crossed it: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3).

If we’re trying to express contrition, while actually remaining defensive in our heart, we are actually failing to repent.

There’s no sugarcoating. He doesn’t call it a “misstep” or a “stumble.” What he has done is “evil” in God’s sight (v. 4). Nor does he put it all in the passive voice: “transgression was committed; sin happened.” There is no ducking or weaving. He had the agency and he was wrong.

2. Assert that it’s just a surface issue.

When someone’s wrong is exposed, it’s common for them to say, “I don’t know what came over me; this isn’t who I really am.” 

David says the opposite: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).

David’s basic point is clear: what he did was an outworking of what is deep within him. He committed adultery because he is, in his heart, an adulterer. He lied because he is, in his heart, a liar. He murdered because he is, in his heart, a murderer. David understands that this is a heart issue, not some one-off behavioral aberration. He did what he did because his heart is as it is. 

We tend to think that who we are, deep down, is fundamentally good. Sure, we know that we don’t get everything right. But it is something else entirely to admit there is something fundamentally wrong with us at our deepest core. Yet this is what Jesus insists we confront. On one occasion he issues this uncomfortable diagnosis: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.These are what defile a person” (Matt. 15:19–20).

Jesus lists symptoms of what’s wrong with us—our hearts. We have evil thoughts because of what our hearts are like. We steal and lie because of what our hearts are like. And we misuse human sexuality (ours and other people’s) because of what our hearts are like. Unless we acknowledge that, we will never truly understand ourselves. 

For the Christian, now indwelled by the Holy Spirit, we enjoy the assurance that our hearts are no longer what they were (Rom. 8:9). We have a new nature. But we still need to recognize that we have not yet jettisoned our sinful nature, and that there is still sin in our hearts. We need to confess not just what we’ve done, but what we’re like. 

3. Acknowledge only the human consequences of sin.

We might be forced to come to terms with wrong we have done to others. But we can still minimize it by suggesting we have only done wrong to one or two people. Only they have been affected––no one else. It’s not a huge deal: they are the problem, which might (we suggest) even say more about them than what we’ve done. 

We need to confess not just what we’ve done, but what we’re like.

Again, David shows us a different way. As he absorbs the seriousness of his sin, he pens these words:

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you may be justified in your words

and blameless in your judgment. (Ps. 51:4)

At first glance this might look like David is avoiding the human consequences of his sin, but the opposite is the case. 

David’s wrongs against Bathsheba are many and serious: he lusted after her, he violated her, he made her a widow, he took away the life she enjoyed. But the reason these wrongs against her matter so much is that they are first and foremost wrongs against God. All sin is, ultimately, against him. Bathsheba was someone God had made, in his image. A violation of her is a violation against him. To wrong anybody is an offense against the One who created them.

4. Keep away from God.

To avoid real, deep repentance, we need to not look God in the eye. He might expose us. The only way to remain in our delusion of ultimate rightness is to keep a careful distance. 

But David found that coming to terms with sin actually made it safe to come to God:

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions. (Ps. 51:1)

David had seen from his own dealings with God, and that of his people’s, that his Lord really is gracious and compassionate, full of faithfulness and love. And this is most clearly seen in the life of Jesus. As we read through any of the four Gospels, it is impossible to miss the kind of God Jesus reveals to us––a God who doesn’t pretend we’re better than we are, or simply scold us for being as we are, but amazingly steps into our reality and takes all our brokenness onto himself. 

This is the heart of the Christian faith. Because of what Jesus has done, it is now at last safe to be fully known by God. We don’t need to hide. There’s no need for spin. We can confess the worst things in our hearts deeply and freely, for he loves us and is eager to forgive.

Written by: SAM ALLBERRY

First published 26.05.20:

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