The question about what to do with remorse, when in the process of forgiveness, is no small matter.
To illustrate this, let’s use a situation that happens all of the time – the fighting couple. A couples comes in for counseling and they fight a lot. One of the spouses uses hurtful words and acts in a sinful way—let’s say ‘unrighteous anger’. He or she can recognize that their words are harsh and not pleasing to Christ, but they don’t really care or feel bad that they have hurt their spouse. They know that they should seek forgiveness from God and their spouse, and they know that they should stop using that type of anger; but the reality is they don’t feel that way. What should we do with the fact that they don’t feel bad or feel guilty? Is the offender required to feel a certain way in order for their repentance to be genuine?
Balancing Commands with Emotions
First, we must acknowledge that forgiveness and repentance are choices that persons chose to make. These are actions that are commanded in scripture (Eph. 4:32) and very little time or words are given to the way a person may feel about repenting or granting forgiveness. Scripture does not say that you should only forgive the person if they feel really, really bad about what they did. It does not say that if you do not feel ready to forgive someone then you can wait until your feelings line up with the commands. Rather, scripture is clear. We should repent even if we don’t feel that way, and we should forgive even if the offender does not appear to be remorseful for what they did.
However, it is important to note that the role of affections is not some superfluous human experience that scripture thinks is rather insignificant when compared to what a person does or what they think. In the book of Hosea, for example, God says that He doesn’t just want the sacrifices that a person brings, He wants their hearts (Hosea 6:6). Even the great Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) calls for the children of Israel to Love the Lord your God. When writing the scriptures, God could have inserted any word that He wanted (such as ‘obey’) but, for this all-important command, He wanted Love to be there. Yes, love is not just a mere feeling; but it does have affectionate components to it. The point is, as Biblical Counselors, we cannot write off emotions and say that they are irrelevant. God has made us emotive beings, on purpose.
An Analogy in the Form of a Tree
If then, on one hand, we must function in a way regardless of our affections, but on the other hand God considers affections to be of supreme value, then where does that leave us with the question of remorse in repentance? The answer lies in a helpful analogy—a tree. If we view remorse like a tree, then we can easily see that some trees are large and some are small. Some trees have fruit that is obvious, tasty, and large; and some do not. Some trees are just in the form of seeds and have barely moved beyond germination—but they are still trees. The point is, there needs to be, at some level (even at the most basic level) some remorse for the sin that has been committed. That remorse will be at different levels for different persons and for different sins, but it must be there for everyone (Jer. 2:12).
For some people, they do not want to forgive until they know that the other person is remorseful. Scripture never calls for the children of God to judge the emotional components of a person’s heart. The person may be very remorseful or maybe they don’t see it as a big deal. Only God and that person will be able to tell if they are remorseful and what that remorse will look like.
Two Steps for our Counselees
For those who have been sinned against and want to know if the person is truly sorry for what they have done, we must point them to two things. First, we must encourage our counselees not to find refuge and hope in the remorse that someone may experience. Often the person that is fixated on the offender being remorseful is trying to find something in their experience that they are not going to find. They can only find safety, refuge, comfort and peace by looking to, and trusting in, Christ.
Second, we must remind our counselees that it is good that God does not require full remorse for forgiveness to occur. We must point our counselees and our own hearts to the truth that God forgave us in our sin even when we didn’t manifest the full amount of remorse. Not one person who has walked this earth has manifested to the highest degree the amount of remorse that their sin has truly caused, and we have certainly not done so for the sum total of all the sins committed throughout our respective lives. God chooses to deal with us graciously in this manner, and so we must train our counselees to do the same.