When Repentance Happens, Healing can Happen (a story)

People are often confused by the presence of sin among Christians. Aren’t Christians supposed to be different? In recent times I have spoken to many people who have suffered wrong-doing in churches and Christian organisations. It is always a horrible thing to hear about, but it isn’t surprising either. Christians continue to battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. We will continue to do so until Jesus returns. Unbelievers sin and Christians do too (1 John 1:8). The difference is that Christians engage in the gospel practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

At least, that’s the theory. The heartbreaking reality for many is that even Christians often refuse to repent or ask for forgiveness. This is extraordinarily destructive to people, relationships, and even entire churches. Worse, it offends God who offers us forgiveness so freely and expects these gospel practices to characterise our relationships with one another (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:21-35).

But there are also wonderfully positive examples that remind us of the power of the gospel.

Some time ago I heard from a friend who had been having very significant difficulties in the Christian organisation in which she worked. For anonymity’s sake let’s call her ‘Karis’ (not her real name). I had previously heard of the difficulty she was facing and was deeply moved when I heard her account of how things had been resolved. With her permission I retell her story here.

Karis’s Story

Karis had worked at this organisation for many years. Over time new strategies for the organisation were devised. This isn’t unusual for an organisation but unfortunately in this case it led to a lot of long-term valued employees and participants in the organisation being pushed aside and treated very badly. This was damaging and personally upsetting for many people. Organisational politics set in. Factions were formed, bad decisions were defended, and things became very ugly. Individuals suffered in many ways, and eventually the organisation itself began to suffer as a result.

Karis attempted to be a voice for various others who had been wronged and were now facing personal and financial hardship as a result. Soon she found a target on her back. She was considered a troublemaker and an enemy of the ‘progress’ of the organisation.

But what hurt her most was the lack of action by the spiritual overseers of the organisation. They saw what was happening but made excuses for refusing to get involved. Various technicalities of governance and organisational structure became excuses for refusing to challenge injustice or defend those in need. The story is long and complicated, but in short, Karis’s story is one of suffering spiritual abuse, callousness, and the effects of leadership cowardice. She appealed to the Bible to point out how the organisation was out of step with the teaching of Jesus, but this was consistently met with silence or excuses. Soon complaints were made about her and she found herself bullied in various ways.

Eventually, in God’s kindness, the main perpetrators in this toxic situation left. However, they left behind not only a great deal of damage, but a leadership that still refused to take responsibility for what they had allowed to occur.

It was clear that time would not heal these wounds. Nor should we expect it to. ‘Time heals wounds’ isn’t a Christian sentiment. Jesus heals wounds. The gospel heals wounds. Time causes gangrene as easily as it causes healing. The solution is the gospel, not time! The world tries to forget wounds and withdraw from those who caused them, but the gospel teaches us to seek reconciliation through speaking the truth, asking for forgiveness, and repenting of our sins.

Truth, Humility, and Reconciliation

God brought change, months later, in a surprising way. Meetings had begun to be held to offer people a chance to tell their stories. Apologies were given, and tears were shed. Karis found all this very helpful for her own personal restoration. But that was not the best thing.

One day a public gathering was called. The organisation’s leader, with hands shaking and his voice breaking, confessed that his lack of courage had created a situation in which many people had suffered, and that he had wrongly let this go on unchallenged. He openly repented of his actions and sought the forgiveness of those who had been harmed. He called on everyone else to examine their hearts and to set out to make right the wrongs that they may have committed too.

After the meeting he sought out Karis personally. He sat in her office and expressed his enormous regret at the hurt that he had caused her. It was an emotional meeting, as you can imagine.

This is extraordinary. Sinful human beings generally stubbornly persevere in self-defensiveness and hard-heartedness. We often refuse to engage in repentance, even when we know we should. And yet, repentance like this should be normal among Christians. We are reconciled to God and to one another in Christ (Ephesians 2:14-16). This way of resolving wrongdoing is simply our reconciliation with God applied horizontally to our relationships with one another.

The damage of those events did not disappear entirely. The pain is still raw for Karis and for others. However, she is profoundly thankful for the way in which God has brought healing and reconciliation to this situation. She is thankful for the awareness that God was with her through these times and that he enabled her to stand up for others.

A call for Humble, Contrite Christian Leadership

Not all wrongs were made right in Karis’s situation. Many of the perpetrators departed rather than dealing with the harm that they caused. Unfortunately, this is all too common, even among Christian leaders. It is easier to cover over wrongdoing than it is to engage with it.

I suspect that many Christian leaders live in fear of their mistakes. For leaders there is often much at stake in admitting fault. It is easy to for them to imagine people in their church condemning them for their failings if they were to find out. However, this is to live by fear rather than by the gospel. The gospel drives away fear (1 John 4:18). Leading others in the sight of God (rather than merely in the sight of people) will lead us to do what is right whatever the cost.

However, we should not assume that Christians will respond badly to leaders confessing their sins. Honesty, transparency, and genuine contrition for sin inspire confidence and trust. Furthermore, God’s people crave examples of gospel restoration to imitate. If Christian leaders don’t model the practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, how can we expect these things to characterise Christian marriages, families, and churches?