If going to church twice every Sunday, when you were a child, teaches you anything it’s the difference between repentance and saying sorry. An apology is only words but repentance is action. To repent means you must actually change your behaviour and stop doing whatever it is you’re repenting for. This distinction is important when considering whether we should “forgive and forget.”
Now, I am a big believer in forgiving unconditionally. Forgiveness allows you to free yourself of any bitterness or desire for vengeance you might feel and thus prevents it bringing you down to a level you never wanted to end up on. However, I do have an issue with the “forget” part of “forgive and forget.” Or that is to say, I have a problem with a certain interpretation of this saying, which is that when people apologise you should just go back to treating them the same way you did before they wronged you. This is foolish, to me, because an apology does not ensure a change in behaviour. Take someone having an affair as an example.
So, Timon and Pumba are dating, everything’s going great, then one day Timon sees Pumba kissing someone else. Now, if Timon was to follow the principle of “forgive and forget” then whenever Pumba turns up to the door sobbing and begging for forgiveness then Timon has to forgive him and act like nothing had changed, otherwise he would be acting immorally. Except that clearly makes no sense, it is not immoral to protect yourself from further harm and, it doesn’t matter how many tears Pumba had to choke back to get out an “I’m sorry,” an apology does not ensure that Timon will not get hurt again by Pumba playing away from home. Now let’s imagine the same situation, but this time with a focus on repentance and not on apologies.
So, same thing, Timon and Pumba are together, everything’s going great, until one day Timon walks in on Pumba and a stranger “wrestling” in bed. They fight but for whatever reason, Timon decides to stay with Pumba but only if he repents. Now, another key difference between repenting and apologising, other than the focus on action over intention, is that there is an understanding that the onus is on the person that did something wrong to earn back the trust they lost and to get things back to the way they were before, so there’s none of this “but I said I was sorry” nonsense, it’s not the responsibility of the person that’s been wronged to suddenly trust them again. So, in the case of Timon and Pumba, rather than Timon acting like nothing happened, it would be up to Pumba to prove they’ve repented by not showing any interest in being with other people and not being secretive about their activities.
When considered in terms of an extreme case this demand for repentance seems obvious but often when dealing with less serious cases of hurt or betrayal people will suddenly think showing repentance is unimportant and that an apology is enough to make things better and to return the relationship back to normal. Let’s go back to school and imagine you’ve told someone about your friend’s crush that you weren’t supposed to tell anyone about. Now, this is a serious issue because you have broken their trust but a lot of times people will believe saying sorry will make everything better and get annoyed if their friend doesn’t immediately trust them with their secrets again. What is needed here is repentance not an apology. The friend that broke the trust must show they understand they are not to share anymore secrets and carry through with keeping secrets to themselves. This is much more important than an apology.
Truth be told I don’t even care if someone apologises to me, all that matters to me is that they realise they should no longer do whatever it is they did that hurt me and that they then don’t do it. I don’t need people to feel bad about what they did, some people have far too fragile egos for that or maybe they truly think they did nothing wrong but so long as they stop treating me in a way I don’t want them to it doesn’t matter to me how they rationalise it.
In a way I guess I’m both more lenient and stricter than most. No matter what someone does to me there is always the chance that things can go back to they were before so long as they have repented. I would literally accept someone who stabbed me back into my life so long as they proved themselves to no longer be a danger around anything you could find in a kitchen. However, I do expect those that have hurt me to actually change their behaviour. There is no ” try” when it comes to me, either the person improves their behaviour or clearly the two of us aren’t compatible and they are out of my life unless and until they have changed their harmful behaviour.
The biggest difficulty with holding others by this standard is that you have to live by it too. You can’t expect others to repent and to accept that it will take time for things to return to the way they were without living by those standards yourself. You can’t tell people “do as I say, not as I do.”
Ultimately though, I believe focusing on repentance will improve people’s relationships, even if it does end a few because people don’t like to change but perhaps that’s for the best, maybe yourself and whoever you fall out with just weren’t compatible. No matter how good they treat you at the beginning of your relationship, whatever form it takes, if people aren’t willing to change their behaviour to stop hurting you then I find it unlikely that that relationship is in your best interests or healthy. Provided they are not putting you in danger, someone that starts bad but repents when they do something that hurts you will make a better friend than someone who starts well but refuses to change when something they do hurts you. A repentant sinner will make a better saint than a stubborn priest.