In a previous article, I explained that false repentance is a common tactic of habitual hypocrites and abusers of various kinds. How do we know if repentance is real or feigned? This excerpt from Hypocrisy Exposed explains what fruit to look for in genuine repentance:
When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with some correction, the letter caused sorrow in members of the church. But this sorrow was a good and godly sorrow that led to repentance.
Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
In contrast to godly sorrow that leads to repentance, Paul states that the sorrow of the world produces death. It is possible to be sorry in a godly way but it is also possible to be sorry in a worldly way. With godly sorrow, there is deep and genuine grief over sin. This involves seeing sin for what it is and seeing its effects on you and others, along with taking full responsibility for it without excuses or justification. Worldly sorrow is selfish sorrow. It is more about feeling sorry for getting caught, for the guilt and shame that you experience, and how this makes you feel. This is a condemnation that subtly keeps the focus on yourself. As odd as this may sound, I have found that some people actually prefer to stay in a place of condemnation. They don’t sincerely want to change, and wallowing in condemnation allows them to express a form of sorrow while still remaining in their sin. This alleviates them from feeling any sense of responsibility to change their behavior.
False repentance is a display of sorrow without a lasting change of heart and behavior. Judas experienced some regret after finding out that Jesus was condemned to death. But this was not godly sorrow or it would have led to repentance and salvation. Instead it led to death, the end result of worldly sorrow.
Consider also Pharaoh as an example of false repentance. He repeatedly told Moses that he would let the people of Israel go, only to change his mind once the given plague was removed. He was not genuinely interested in changing his ways; he only wanted the consequences removed. Pharaoh hardened his heart multiple times in the face of clear displays of God’s power. After he continually rejected the light, God Himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart, leaving him in a condition where he would never change.
In 1 Samuel 26, Saul is again pursuing David in order to take his life. David again has an opportunity to kill Saul but chooses to spare him, and Saul again offers an apology. He even invites David to return to the palace, promising not to harm him any longer: “I have sinned. Return, my son David. For I will harm you no more” (1 Samuel 26:21). But David has seen the pattern long enough and is not fooled. The beginning of chapter 27 gives us insight into David’s thinking:
And David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish someday by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should speedily escape to the land of the Philistines; and Saul will despair of me, to seek me anymore in any part of Israel. So I shall escape out of his hand.” (1 Samuel 27:1)
Saul’s words sounded nice, but his consistent fruit showed otherwise. David realized that he would never be safe around Saul, and he chose to take the risk of living for a season in the land of the Philistines.
Genuine repentance has fruit that proves it is true. When the Sadducees and Pharisees came to be baptized by John the Baptist, he did not merely assume they were being sincere. He told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). While we should not see ourselves as the ultimate judge, neither should we allow ourselves to be duped by false repentance. We do not need to allow ourselves to be re-abused by someone because they said they were sorry. Trust takes time to rebuild and repentance takes time to verify, especially when there has been an ongoing pattern of destructive behavior and a lifestyle of duplicity and hypocrisy.
Pastors, other church leaders, and Christians in general must take care not to enable abusive people and chronic hypocrites by being too naïve in this area. (How many pastors today would have counseled David to return to Saul after his apology, in the name of forgiveness and reconciliation?) When I first experienced someone’s false repentance, it took several rounds of the pattern until I finally realized what was going on. Now I am a bit wiser to this tactic. And I am praying to grow in discernment in these dynamics and to be able to distinguish between the true and false more quickly.
I am also realizing that in our hope for people to experience transformation, we are sometimes fooled by false repentance. We so desire to see lives changed and people come to Christ in powerful ways. We desperately want to see people restored and healed. We do well to want these things, and there are many testimonies of God’s grace transforming the “worst” of sinners. But we also must realize how these hopes and desires can be used against us by wolves who wear sheep’s clothing. We can be easily duped by false repentance because we so badly want it to be true.
True repentance has the fruit of a changed life. Fruit takes time to produce, but eventually it will be clear. Here are some marks of genuine repentance:
If you have been dealing with a person living in ongoing hypocrisy, you have every right to question the sincerity of their repentance and take the time necessary to rebuild trust. You may hear things like “don’t judge,” “everybody sins,” and “nobody’s perfect” from friends, family, and the person in hypocrisy. But the fruit of repentance is required to verify that actual change has occurred.