Overcoming the Past – Lesson 8:Repentance

Key Scriptures: Genesis 42-45, Acts 3:19, Matthew 4:17, Acts 2:38, Acts 17:30,

1 John 1:9, Romans 2:4, Luke 13:3, Luke 5:32, 2 Corinthians 7:10, Acts 26:20, Luke 15:10, Luke 17:3, Luke 3:8, Romans 2:5, Romans 6:23, Luke 19:1-10, Matthew 5:23-24

Guiding Question: What does God expect from us when we repent?

Optional Introductory Activity: Before class find a recent example of someone famous who apologized without really apologizing. You can bring in the quote or a video clip. After sharing the “apology”, ask students if they had been upset by what the person had done, would this apology have made them believe the person was truly sorry for what he or she had done. Have them work as a class to create a list of anything that would be part of a real apology and the things that made it a bad apology. Create the list where everyone can see it, because you will be adding to the list throughout the lesson.

Lesson: (Questions for students are in bold italics.) We have been talking about apologies. They are definitely a part of our topic today – repentance. Repentance goes beyond a typical apology. The two should be synonyms, but most people associate apologies with merely trying to get someone to stop being angry with you. Repentance has an element of that in it, but it’s more about making changes so the offensive thoughts, attitudes, words and actions don’t happen again in the future.

Read or tell the stories in Genesis 42 – 45. Once Joseph’s brothers realized who he was and how much power he now held, what was their reaction? How did Joseph respond? Do you believe the brothers had repented for what they had done? What were the signs that the brothers had indeed repented of what they had done to him and by extension to their father, Jacob? 

When we are little and do something to hurt someone else, what does some adult usually tell us to do? Most adults will tell little kids to “say you are sorry”. How is that apology usually delivered? Now, some adults will go a bit farther when that happens and say, “Say it like you mean it!” While the intention is good, what is wrong with that instruction? It implies that acting as if we are sorry is more important than actually being sorry. 

Our repentance is extremely important to God. In fact, depending on the version you are using, the Bible uses the word “repent” or “repentance” 70-100 times. (You may wish to read Acts 3:19, Matthew 4:17, and Acts 2:38) In addition to that, there are other phrases like “turn from your sins” that describe repentance without using the actual word. So when God says He expects us to repent of our sins, what does He actually expect us to do?

When we talk about repentance, Zacchaeus provides us with a great example of someone who thoroughly repented of what he had done. Read Luke 19:1-10. What are the steps Zacchaeus took in his repentance? Evidently, Zacchaeus had heard about the things Jesus was teaching. He knew that stealing from people in his job as tax collector was sinful. He obviously felt awful about what he had been doing, because all Jesus had to do was tell Zacchaeus he was coming to his house and immediately Zacchaeus apologized in a unique way. He didn’t just say he was sorry, he told how he was going to change and how he was going to try and make amends for his past sins. 

So what are some of the things Jesus was preaching to the people that might have influenced how Zacchaeus behaved when he encountered Jesus? Read the following verses. What does Jesus teach about repentance in each? (Add these to the lists you created in the introductory activity.)

  • Luke 5:32 Jesus came to call sinners to repentance
  • Luke 13:3 unless we repent, we will perish
  • Matthew 4:17 repent
  • Luke 15:10 the angels rejoice when someone repents
  • Matthew 5:23-24 reconcile (repenting if necessary) with others before coming to worship God
  • Luke 3:8 bear fruits in keeping with repentance 

Zacchaeus understood that true repentance wasn’t a non-apology, apology. Repentance isn’t just saying “I’m sorry” (whether we really mean it or not). Repentance is being truly sad about what we have done. It’s saying “I’m sorry” to God and those we have hurt with our sins and truly meaning it with all of our hearts. It’s thinking about what we need to change in our lives so we won’t do those sinful things again. It’s trying to make amends for what we did if at all possible. It’s asking God and those we have hurt to forgive us.

Let’s talk for just a minute about the concept of making amends. It may be something you haven’t heard of before today. Making amends means you try to “fix” what you did when you sinned. Sometimes this isn’t possible. If you murder someone, you can’t bring that person back to life. Often though, we could do something to make amends for what we did. Zacchaeus decided to give half of what he owned to the poor and to pay back, not just what he stole, but four times what he had stolen to each person he had robbed! Zacchaeus was making giant amends for what he had done!

When you want to make amends, think about the consequences of what you did to the other person. If you broke something – fix it or offer to pay for a new one. If you stole something – return it. Sometimes the consequences are intangible. In that case, ask the other person what you can do to make things right. Amends aren’t always possible, but when we can and do make amends, healing can occur.

One part of a good apology that is implied, but not directly stated is stating what you will change in order to prevent yourself from doing the same thing again. I doubt Zacchaeus ever stole from people when he was collecting their taxes again. Or he may have decided the temptation was too great and changed occupations so he wouldn’t be tempted to steal again. We don’t know for sure what Zacchaeus did, but you need to decide what you need to change and share that with God and the person you hurt. 

When you have sinned, think carefully about what happened and what you can change to keep from doing it again. This is often the part even adult Christians forget. If we don’t figure out the things that led to our bad choices, we will probably make them again and again. We need to change whatever needs to be changed to make it less likely we will commit that sin again. Sometimes, it may be something simple like getting more sleep every night to make it easier to control our tongues. At other times, we may need to do hard things like changing friends in order to avoid temptation. Repenting means “turning away” from our sin. It requires an action plan beyond just telling God we are sorry.

A lot of times, those non-apology apologies happen because we really don’t believe we did anything wrong. We want to make excuses for making poor choices. We want to pretend like we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to do it or that it would hurt someone. We want to think the problem is really the other person being “too sensitive” or that their behaviors somehow “forced” us to do something ugly and sinful in response. We don’t want to take personal responsibility for our attitudes, words and behavior.

The Bible has told us some important things we need to understand when we feel like we shouldn’t have to repent or don’t want to repent. Read the following verses. What is the command or principle God wants us to learn and obey in each? 

  • Acts 17:30 at one point, God may have accepted ignorance as an excuse, but no longer. It’s our responsibility to be familiar with the Bible and know what God expects from His people.
  • Romans 2:4 we aren’t to take advantage of God’s kindness and patience and assume it means He doesn’t want us to repent, rather He is kind in hopes that it will lead us to repentance
  • Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is death
  • Romans 2:5 when our hearts are hard and unrepentant, we are storing up jwrath for when God’s judgment will be revealed
  • 2 Corinthians 7:10 our godly grief (about what we have done) should lead to repentance
  • 1 John 1:9 if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive
  • Acts 26:20 we should be performing deeds in keeping with our repentance 

The Bible tells us God will forgive us when we repent, but other people may not be quite as willing or as quick to forgive. While the Bible does command us to forgive one another, we can’t force someone to forgive us. We have to focus on doing what God has told us to do in repenting and try to avoid getting upset and possibly even sinning again if they don’t respond the way we believe they should. 

We talk about this more in other lessons, but let’s briefly look at what we should do when someone sins against us. Read Luke 17:3. What does God want us to do when someone sins against us? The mistake most of us make is that we try to punish the other person in some way. Some Christians might say you should never even mention it when someone hurts us. If you can forgive them without mentioning it, that probably is a wise strategy. 

If, however, you are struggling or you know this person is actively hurting others with this sin, then this scripture tells us we probably should go and talk with the person. The word “rebuke” means it is also okay to tell them what they are doing is wrong, hurtful and/or sinful. It is not necessary to be ugly, hurtful or loud to rebuke someone. In fact, the most effective rebukes are often very calm, gentle and loving.

The last part is the part that is the most difficult for many of us. When we tell someone they have hurt us and they repent – we have to forgive them. The Bible doesn’t teach conditional forgiveness. Just like God forgives us and we want other people to forgive us when we repent.

Skills Activity: Review the main points from the lesson. Go over the lists of what do and don’t make a good apology/repentance. Ask students if there is anything else they would add to either list. Depending upon your students, you may want to give specific examples of things people say to apologize/repent when they aren’t really apologizing/repenting, like: 

  • Sorry, not sorry
  • I’m sorry you feel that way
  • I’m sorry, but
  • I’m sorry that you are angry
  • Fine! I’m sorry! (Said with attitude!)
  • I was just…
  • I am sorry if…
  • I regret mistakes were made (not taking personal responsibility…regret is not the same as repentance. Regret is an emotion, whereas repentance requires action.)
  • I know I…..but…..
  • I probably…(tries to minimize what was done)
  • I guess I owe you an apology….(without actually giving one)
  • I will apologize if….(placing conditions on the apology)
  • I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done….(doesn’t meet the other conditions of repentance as it is too general)

Share with students that someone once wrote that their are signs that someone has truly repented. They are:

  • Empathy for the other person’s feelings
  • Great remorse (feeling)
  • Makes amends
  • Accepts any consequences
  • Doesn’t expect or demand forgiveness
  • Changes behaviors to avoid repeating the behavior
  • Grateful for forgiveness

Ask students to evaluate this list in comparison to the scriptures in the lesson. What changes would they make to the list?

For the remainder of the time help students work through real and/or fictional scenarios. Assume they are the person who needs to apologize/repent. How would they go through the various steps. If students feel fairly comfortable with the process, you can divide them into pairs or small groups and have them practice actual scenarios. Encourage the person who has been “wronged” to respond as most people might in that situation.

Some students may struggle with the steps requiring making changes and making amends. It can be helpful to work with them using scenarios they have encountered in real life. Encourage them to take the time to list their various options. You may even want to work together to come up with a master list that includes common options for behavior changes and making amends and send the list home with students. Some students may need additional mentoring on the topic depending upon the situation. 

Application Challenge: Review the scriptures from the lesson and the main ideas. Is there someone to whom you owe an apology? Have you neglected to repent to God for a sin you committed? Make a plan to apologize/repent and carry it out this week. Don’t forget to list changes you will make to avoid doing the same thing again and try to make amends in some way.

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