7 Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:
“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”
10 When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.
-Jonah 3:7-10, NLT
What does genuine repentance look like?
I have chosen a passage from the book of Jonah to illustrate what repentance looks like in truth. This passage tells us how the people of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s message of God’s coming judgment and wrath due to their wickedness. In short, they repented so well that their repentance convinced God to not destroy them as had been planned.
The response of Nineveh’s inhabitants here present us with a picture of what repentance that is acceptable to God looks like.
1. Genuine repentance is demonstrated with actions and not just words.
We see this with Nineveh’s people submitting to fasting for mercy. They still pray–i.e. words are involved–but they also fast and cease their wicked ways. In this, we see concrete actions indicating that things will not continue as they once were.
Applying this to cheaters, I would expect an apology along with actions indicating the cheating is done. This might include things like answering all of the faithful spouse’s questions whenever he or she asks with zero defensiveness. It might include a generous divorce agreement or a post-nuptial agreement laying out the consequences if the unfaithful spouses cheats again–emotionally or physically. It might include the cheater making his or her own appointments with a qualified therapist/pastor who will hold the cheater accountable for taking full responsibility for their sinful junk and working through it. Also, it might mean requiring the cheater to come clean with those cohorts used against the faithful spouse while he/she cheated secretly.
2. Genuine repentance comes from a place of humility.
Notice that the people of Nineveh are not arguing with Jonah or God over whether or not they deserve to be destroyed. They are not blameshifting or engaging in Family of Origin (FOO) discussions on how having bad parents made them do it. They accept the judgment on their wicked ways as just, and then they pursue mercy.
Further, they go into a time of morning and fasting indicating physically a posture of humility. They are under no illusion that they are entitled to God’s mercy. These people do not put on a pride parade where they talk about how their gods and people are superior to Jonah’s. Rather, they recognize the Jewish God as powerful and seek after His mercy to avert deserved destruction.
This readily applies to cheaters in multiple ways. First, repentant cheaters accept that they are not entitled to remain married to the respective faithful spouse whom they betrayed (e.g. Deut. 22:22, Mt. 19:9, etc.). Second, they take full responsibility for the cheating and accept the full consequences, which likely will include righteous anger from the faithful spouse, for such sins. They do not whine over being monitored by the faithful spouse or for being questioned multiple times about the cheating later.
3. Genuine repentance includes demonstration of genuine remorse.
The people of Nineveh both stopped their wicked ways and mourned. These were not tears to manipulate. They did not embark on this course of action in mourning as if they did not believe they were worthy of God’s wrath. I do not see any statement to that effect. This is a matter of real remorse.
Another marker of real remorse is actual empathy. The wrongdoer is pained by pain he/she caused his/her victim. It makes him/her sad and mourn over what he/she destroyed via his/her sins. This is another reason why the wrongdoer ceases from sin. They do not wan to continue making the losses greater of which they mourn.
Genuine repentance in a cheater is rare. They might stop for a period because they can’t get away with it and keep a pristine public image. Tears might even come as they cry for themselves–i.e. over getting caught and having to face an angry/hurt spouse. They might even say that they are sorry. None of these things in themselves indicate true and godly repentance.
Godly repentance requires much, much more of the cheater.