by Leslie Vernick

Last month I wrote an article about superficial apologies, when “I’m sorry” is not the end of rebuilding a shattered marriage but only the beginning of genuine change. But what does that change look like in real life?

Jesus told his own disciples that their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak. No one changes overnight or never messes up again. Lasting change comes hard for all of us, but as Biblical counselors, our task is private lessons in applied theology. Below are five biblical steps we can help someone take to show that their “sorry” is more than mere words.

1. Clarity: We can’t help someone change something that he or she cannot or will not see. Jesus calls this condition in its extreme form blindness, and when we are blind to our own sin, we can’t repent. When someone can’t admit wrong, take personal responsibility, or see what their part of the problem is, start there. It’s always easier to blame others or make excuses than to see clearly our own part of the problem. Jesus tells us when our eye is healthy, our whole body is full of light. But he also goes on to warn those who think that they see clearly but really don’t. He tells them that they are in grave danger (Matthew 6:22,23).

The Scriptures warn us that we are all self-deceived and that we cannot know our own selves apart from God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, and trusted others who help us see ourselves more honestly (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:25; Hebrews 3:13). If someone’s sorrow is genuine, he stops lying to himself that it’s everyone else’s fault that he behaves the way he does. He stops telling himself that what he does isn’t that bad or that he can’t change.   

Change only begins when a person sees clearly he needs to change and that means taking responsibility for himself and his own destructive behaviors–no more blaming, no more excuses, even if provoked.

2. Commitment: There are things that people see quite clearly yet they are not committed to changing them. They may see the growing numbers on the scale or the rising credit charge cards, yet it feels too hard or they’re not yet willing to give up the temporary good feelings they receive from overeating or overspending. 

As Biblical counselors, we see people who want to change but do not want to do the work involved to actually change. Like Naaman, who resisted Elisha’s treatment plan for his leprosy, a lot of the people we work with are looking for a quick fix. (See 2 Kings 5 for the story.)

It’s not enough for our counselee to see clearly his or her problem, or even want to change. For change to actually happen our counselee must make the commitment to do the work to change so that these same sins that have broken trust in his marriage don’t continue to repeat themselves.

For example, a verbally abusive man may need to learn how to handle his frustrations, disappointments, and negative feelings when his wife upsets him or doesn’t do what he wants her to do. In the past he’s blamed her, insisting that if only she changed and didn’t upset him, he wouldn’t have acted that way.

Now he realizes that there is no perfect wife, and it’s unrealistic and unreasonable for him to demand that his wife never upset him. But in addition to his new clarity, he must be committed to learning how to manage his own negative emotions when it actually happens and he feels furious.

3. Confession: No one changes perfectly or overnight, but when he messes up and repeats old behavior, he must now do something differently than he has in the past. Now he confesses. He no longer hides, lies, minimizes, or blames someone else for his bad behavior. 

Practicing confession humbles us. It helps us put into practice the new attitudes and actions that we want to grow in. John the Baptist said it best to the Pharisees that were talking the talk but not walking the walk. He said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Repentance isn’t just saying I’m sorry–confession is turning from your sins and learning not to repeat them.

4. Community: God did not intend people to mature all by themselves. From birth he put infants into families to help them learn, grow, and mature. The family of God is instructed to love, encourage, admonish, and strengthen one another so that we all might grow into the full measure of Christ.

When someone is genuinely sorry for repetitive sins, they are willing to allow people along side of them to give them honest feedback on their behaviors and attitudes. The Bible tells us that we need one another so that we don’t stay deceived about our own selves (Hebrews 3:13).

By inviting community to help him, our client has come to understand that he cannot grow to become the person God calls him to be all by himself. He may invite his spouse, pastor, counselor, as well as other wise and godly friends, to give him feedback and hold him accountable to the changes he states he wants to make.

5. Consequences: One of the most amazing freedoms God has given his creatures is the freedom to choose. We can choose right or wrong, love or hate, good or bad, to change or not to change. Closely linked to our choices are the consequences of our choices. 

An important part of growing up is being able to see ahead to the consequences of our choices, both positive and negative. For example, if I choose to spend my paycheck on a fun vacation instead of pay my bills, the consequences are that I don’t have enough to pay my bills. Then I feel stressed, damage my credit rating, and incur late charges. Was it worth it?

As Biblical counselors it is important we help our clients see ahead to the results of their choices. Sometimes, especially in marriage, our client expects “sorry” to mitigate all negative consequences. They quote “love covers a multitude of sins,” expecting love to give them a get out of jail free card or total amnesty when they’ve seriously sinned against their partner.

Mature people realize that grace and forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mitigate negative consequences of one’s poor choices. God warned Adam and Eve that if they chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they would die. He allowed them the freedom to choose, and they suffered the consequence of their poor choice, even though God still loved and forgave them. 

It’s important that we help our client accept that when he sins against his spouse there are always negative consequences. Is that what he wants? Painful consequences are God’s way to help us wake up and stop doing destructive and sinful things. Moses encouraged the Israelites to choose life so that they and their children would experience the result–life and God’s blessings (Deuteronomy 28).

Clarity, commitment, confession, community, and consequences are five stepping stones that lead to greater growth and maturity, which can lead to lasting change.