The Marks of True Repentance

Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have once again been thrust into the spotlight in recent months. After a period of relative calm, the headlines have come with a flurry. In mid-January, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping his way to Tour de France dominance. In the lead up to the Superbowl, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was accused of using deer antler spray, a banned substance, to aid his recovery from a torn tricep early in the season. Almost concurrently came a story involving Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, and a handful of other baseball players appearing on a list from an anti-aging clinic in association with distributing PEDs. Rodriguez promptly denied all involvement, but had previously admitted to using PEDs earlier in his career in a “tell-all” interview with Katie Couric. Three scandals in various states of exposure. When it rains it pours.

Repentance or saving face?
In the lead up to Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, there was a syndicated radio show discussing the familiar refrain of “is he truly sorry or is he just sorry he got caught?” Most callers thought it was the latter. The pattern of public repentance following exposure is all too familiar. It may be delayed as long as possible, but when excuses have been exhausted and the truth is unavoidable, the accused will come, tail between their legs, and apologize for their misdeeds. In our skepticism, we discount the sincerity of any sorrow that follows unraveling scandal. If sincere, we speculate, it would have come earlier, before the truth was dragged into the light by dogged investigation.

The marks of genuine repentance
But is it possible that exposure could be the gateway to true repentance, a needed wake-up call that stirs the accused from their moral stupor? Could not God use this to prompt true repentance? This demands discernment. When someone’s hand is caught in the cookie jar, how can we distinguish between repentance from the heart and a display merely intended to save face? For this we should look for at least three characteristics as marks of genuine repentance.

When scandal is revealed it is almost always the tip of the iceberg that has been pushed above the surface. A dense mass remains hidden by the surrounding water. The worst may be exposed, but there is much that remains concealed. Merely addressing what has been uncovered is a warning sign of insincerity.

Being exposed is passive, something done to the individual. It is outside of their control. They did not choose to reveal the offense. But with much remaining concealed, there is the opportunity to be active in the exposure, revealing information without it being dragged out. Scandal breaks when an individual is exposed by another. Repentance begins when the individual moves beyond the passive to the active and exposes oneself.

Sin loses its potency when exposed to the light. True repentance will reveal the bulk beneath the surface because the risk of shame is worth the hope of recovery. Admit the illness and energy isn’t wasted on projecting an image of health. Focus can be given fully to the cure.

In true repentance, there is a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s choices. True, divine pardon is freely available through Christ. But while the stain of sin can be wiped away immediately, the consequences of sin linger on. Wounds are not healed in a moment. Trust is not restored overnight. After a great fall it is no easy task to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Sin creates a tangled mess. Unraveling the snarled ball will take time and effort.

In taking responsibility, true repentance does not resort to excuses or minimization. The gravity of one’s offense is acknowledged and the consequences are accepted. The slow path of restoration will be embraced and shortcuts will be avoided. Depending on the circumstances, these consequences may involve financial obligation, legal punishment, job loss, anger from victims, widespread distrust, family division, damaged reputation, and broken friendships, among others. None of these are appealing, but they are deserved. True repentance will be reflected in a willingness to lie in the bed one has made.

While scandal is exposed in a moment, splashed across the front pages of tabloids and whispered about in hushed voice at the grocery store, true repentance is something that is evidenced over time. By the time scandal is exposed, it is generally deep in a destructive spiral. This did not happen overnight and it will not be overcome overnight. There are well-established patterns that must be broken and weaknesses that must be protected against. Momentary shame may be enough to correct behavior for a short time, but long-term change will come only as root issues are dealt with over time. Exposure will not eliminate vulnerability.

True repentance will entail pursuing full transformation. This may be aided by professional counseling or involvement in a support group. It will certainly demand involving others in the process to help protect against set back, overcome rough patches and celebrate progress. Restoration is a long and wearisome road. Progress is mingled with regress and discouragement can easily set in. Ongoing accountability with a trusted group will help maintain momentum long after the public has wearied of the story.

The sincerity of repentance will be evidenced over time. Transparency, responsibility, and accountability will become obvious in the ensuing days, weeks, and months. But for those who believe in a God of grace, there is always the hope that exposure may be the first step toward restoration. While these three stories represent a thick slice of scandal pie in the realm of sports, there are plenty of other slices to be served. There will be more scandals exposed, more tearful news conferences, and more orchestrated confessions – in sports, in politics, in media, in ministry, and even in personal life with friends and family. Being able to discern true repentance will have recurring relevance in every arena of life.

Phil Huber is a freelance writer. He blogs regularly at

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