When I’m talking with someone who has been deeply betrayed by a friend, a family member, or a coworker, they often ask, “How can I ever trust him again? He said he was sorry, but how do I know if he is truly sorry about the damage he’s done or if he’s just sorry he got caught? I don’t want to get burned again.”
Those are tough questions, because there’s a lot at stake for both the betrayer and the betrayed.
Rebuilding trust in a relationship after a bitter betrayal almost feels like an insurmountable task. No one in his right mind would dare trust a spouse who was unfaithful, a coworker who stole his good idea, or a friend who lied about him behind his back. Would you?
But what if that person apologizes? Then what? How can you know if someone has truly repented?
As Jesus’ followers, we talk about repentance—that radical change of heart and mind that alters one’s perspective and reshapes behavior patterns to look more like Jesus. It’s been a part of the Jesus story from the beginning. John the Baptist referred to it as “producing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8).
Testing repentance is vital to rebuilding trust in a broken relationship. So what are some of the signs of a repentant heart?
King David—a man whose deceit betrayed his wife and his nation—said it best: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
One place to begin looking for “fruit” that reveals a deeply rooted heart of repentance is in how the repentant betrayer responds when questioned. A repentant person demonstrates a humble attitude that is neither demanding nor defensive when questioned. There is an openness that replaces deceit, a willingness to be accountable for his or her actions on multiple levels without resorting to blaming others or making excuses for failures.
It’s only through experiencing a consistency in both attitudes and actions that reflect repentance that the betrayed individual will over time begin to take the risky steps towards trusting again.
How much time? As much as it takes.
And the repentant person will humbly wait for as long as it takes, knowing that the celebration over restoration will be a sweet harvest for both parties—a harvest that repentance and forgiveness has made possible because of Jesus’ example.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).