It’s called crazy-making. It’s the feeling you get when your addicted spouse seems to have made a turnaround but the next day drags you back into a codependent dance with their passive-aggressive attempts at manipulation.

Are they repentant or not? Have they really changed or haven’t they? It’s enough to drive anyone, well, crazy.

Using God’s Word as a Standard

But we don’t have to exist in that chaotic limbo of not knowing. There are very clear standards we can apply to our spouse’s behavior to know if they have reached the point of real repentance before we lower our guard with them to rebuild trust and emotional intimacy.

But these standards aren’t limited to our spouse. They are also great for measuring our own level of repentance from codependency or idolatry.

There are dozens of strategies formulated by well-meaning, successful therapists to help a spouse recognize when their partner has owned their recovery. Unfortunately, some of these strategies are convoluted, subjective, and even humanistic in their approach.

The easiest and most straightforward way to identify whether anyone has truly seen the error of their ways and is striving to change is by using the ultimate measuring line—God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12-13, John 12:48).

The Defining Qualities of Repentance

It’s unfortunate, but the word repentance has a bad reputation these days. That’s because over the last few centuries, numerous religious leaders misused the term as a war cry over their congregations. In the Greek (the original language of the New Testament), the word for repentance is metanoia. It simply means a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul admonished leaders for not dealing with sin in the church (chapters 3, 5-8, 11, 14). By the time he wrote his second letter to them, they’d repented (changed their mind) and scripturally dealt with the sin.

Paul applauds them for their turn around. He explains their godly sorrow (as measured by specific qualities) led them to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-11). What are these qualities that we too can use to identify whether our spouse’s repentance is real or not?

  • An earnestness or sincerity to make amends.
  • An eagerness to clear themselves and stand fully in the light
  • An indignation over their sin and how it has hurt God and others
  • An alarm over what they have done
  • A longing to make things right
  • A concern over the devastation their sin has wreaked
  • And a resolve and readiness to make restitution regardless of the consequences

Please note that godly sorrow isn’t repentance. Since we are all repeat offenders of sin, repentance is a deliberate and continual process. It’s an on-going, daily decision for anyone who calls themselves a Christian or disciple of Jesus (1 John 1:6-10).

When someone has godly sorrow over the sins of adultery or sexual addiction, the above qualities are present. If these qualities are embraced and fulfilled, biblical repentance is eventual.

What It Is & What It Isn’t

Practically, what does repentance look like in the life of a sex addict?

1. They are getting help.

This can be in the form of a licensed counselor specializing in sex addiction or more importantly, a support group.

It is impossible to recover from any addiction aloneIf they say they don’t need a group, they are neither earnest nor eager. Bottom line, they aren’t convinced they have a problem. They’re more worried about their reputation than living in the light (John 3:19-21).

Even if there isn’t a group locally, there are numerous online groups and apps they can use to stay engaged with others who can both inspire them to stay pure and call them out when they make excuses for acting out. They have no excuse for not participating in a tribe of like-minded individuals.

2. They are reading the Bible daily.

Reading the scriptures is the only way to begin thinking more like Jesus and less like the world (Colossians 3:1-2). Only when they are in the Word and consistently reading God’s standard can they develop an alarm and indignation over their sin. Only when they view their sin through God’s eyes can they see the devastation their selfishness has wreaked in the lives of their friends and family, and have a genuine concern about it.

(In a perfect world, daily Bible study would be first on this list, but the likely reason your spouse got into sexual sin in the first place was because they were either not reading their Bible and/or they weren’t emotionally connected to other noble-hearted, spiritual men (Acts 17:11).

3. They take 100%, full responsibility for their sin.

There is no blame-shifting on anyone including their spouse. There is zero defensiveness. There is a longing, resolve, and a readiness to make restitution regardless of the repercussions.

Only a person who has deliberately chosen to make Jesus the Lord of their life can look their consequences in the eye and be at peace with them (Psalm 51).

A Bad Habit on Steroids

One of the most frustrating and even confusing things for a spouse of an addict is understanding why it is so hard for their partner to just stop sinning. There are several factors involved in real change including physiological and spiritual (Romans 7:15-25).

Think about how hard it is for you to stop eating sweets, indulging in social media, or shopping when you feel depressed. You may stop for a day or two, but when you get triggered, your ingrained habits kick in. Sexual addiction is a bad habit on steroids. It’s a repetitive pattern created from a desire to medicate unresolved pain often sustained in childhood.

In other words, the source of this type of sin runs deep, and I mean subterranean. We’d never expect a tree to stop bearing fruit because we cut off the branches. We have to dig deep to get at the roots.

Part of the Transforming Process

That’s why repentance is a transformational process. It starts with getting out of denial (see last week’s post about the stages of the recovery process). Until a person faces the fact they have a problem, they will continue to medicate by acting out. It’s all they know.

Not until they become like the prodigal son, reach their pain threshold, and find themselves face down in pig slop, will they see the truth of their predicament. Only then can the characteristics of godly sorrow be accessed, nurtured, and assimilated.

Old patterns are replaced with new behaviors and the transformation begins (Romans 12:1-2). This transformational process can take months or even years, depending on how long they have been addicted.

A faithful disciple or Christian who counted the cost before they made Jesus Lord (Luke 14:25-33) can traverse the transformational process with the help of the Holy Spirit. But Paul says those who don’t have the Spirit can’t; they are slaves to their sinful nature (Romans 8:5-9).

So how can we help our non-Christian spouse be brought to repentance? By getting out of God’s way and letting Him work on humbling our partner. Since Jesus also suffered betrayal and suffering, we can also follow His example (1 Peter 2:21-3:2).

Owning Our Own Repentance

It’s easy to sit back and expect our spouse to repent, but the truth is, we all have sinned (Romans 3:23). God exposed our spouse’s sin because he wants us to repent and change as much as he wants them to repent and change.

When my husband and I separated, I was forced to face the fact that I was just as responsible for the collapse of my marriage as he was. No, I did not “make” him choose infidelity, but I did make my own sinful choices by idolizing my husband’s love and approval more than God’s. To God, idolatry, lying, cowardice, and faithlessness are just as sinful as sexual immorality (Revelations 21:8).

So where does that leave me? Taking the plank out of my own eye before I attempt to remove the splinter from anyone else’s (Matthew 7:3-5). In truth, I wasn’t able to recognize repentance in my husband until I’d repented myself.

In John 21:21-22, when Jesus warned Peter about the trials that would come to him later in life, Peter pointed to John and asked, “What about him?” Jesus essentially replied, “How I work in his life has no bearing on your responsibility to be obedient. Regardless of what anyone else does, you must follow me.”

What about you? How well are you pursuing your own repentance? Are the qualities Paul used in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 a part of your character yet? If not, how diligently are you reading the scriptures to allow your heart to be transformed into a continual state of repentance?

If you’d like to learn more about what the Bible says about the role of repentance in Christ’s plan of salvation, contact me at kim@hopeforspouses.com.


Also published on Medium.