—by Bev Stratton

“I’m sorry.” I do not remember the circumstances, what he had done wrong or how I had exploded in anger, but I remember how important it was to tell my 8-year-old that I was sorry. I needed to apologize for my behavior, to make amends for hurting him, to reconnect.

I hurt my colleague, too, with my words. My ideas were different from hers; she saw something I had written and took offense. I needed to make it right. We did. The two of us began meeting each week to get to know one another, talk about our teaching and what we were learning. By making time to restore trust, my colleague allowed me to repent.

On another occasion, I “crossed the line” by saying something impulsively that hurt a co-worker. As a consequence, I was cut off from the community for a time. I feared for my job; my self-worth plummeted. Complicating the situation, I thought my colleague had misbehaved too. It was harder for me to repent and forgive.

So how does repentance work—in the Bible and in our lives? And what does it have to do with the sense of guilt we sometimes feel?

Calling for change

“Repent!” The word may evoke images of a fire-and-brimstone preacher shouting at you to change your ways to escape damnation. You might imagine Old Testament prophets calling the people of Israel to repent.

We remember the pain of exile the Israelites suffered because they did not turn back to God and do justice for the vulnerable among them. Calls to repentance can feel uncomfortable, especially when coupled with awareness of our wrongdoings.

Guilt and sin are tied together in the Bible, beginning from the Garden of Eden. Repentance inverts guilt and brings about healing. It emerges from God first loving us, turning toward us, calling for us, coming for us and inviting us—in the words of the 1970s “Godspell” musical—to “turn back” and “forswear our foolish ways.”

Good guilt

A sense of guilt teaches us that our actions have an impact on others. We learn that there are appropriate ways to behave that help us and our group or community to grow. As children, we may have experienced a “time out,” where we were temporarily separated from the group, in order to calm down, realize our wrongdoing and see the bigger picture.

Parents who understand the power of guilt are careful to focus on teaching the child. They do so by stating that what he or she is doing is wrong, saying clearly what action they want the child to stop, explaining why and describing what to do instead. Such correction is accompanied by clear signals from the parent that the child has worth as a person—that she or he has done something wrong but is not bad as a person. The “interpersonal bridge” linking the child and the parent remains intact. This is where repentance fits in.

This article is excerpted from the October 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.

Bev Stratton is a couples therapist in Roseville, Minnesota, and professor emerita of religion at Augsburg University (Minneapolis).