Frank and Cheerful Penitence

The university where I work full-time permits me to teach on the side, and so I do.

But I teach a different population of students now than I did before.Many of my students are what most universities would qualify as “non-traditional”: women and men who are adults in their forties and fifties, many with families and full careers.  They meet me in one of their early graduate courses.

The experience is, of course, different.  Many of them haven’t been in college for a while; they need to get reacquainted with the research techniques and some of the supplementary software.  Excuses for late assignments are no longer “I was sick” but have become “I had to stay late for work.”

But one particular difference has blown me away: they own their mistakes and their failures.

Recently, one of my students earned a C.  Not a bad grade, but he could have done better – the mistake he had made resulting in the botched grade was pure carelessness.  In the past, my traditional freshman students made a habit of trying to argue the grade up by emphasizing the parts of the paper they did correctly, or by trying to soften the loss of points in some other way.  They begged for extra credit.

So when I saw this student’s number on my phone, I picked up with weary resignation.  I was prepared to tell him I had no intention of changing the grade, of reassuring him that he would not fail the entire course, that this was not the end of the world.

But that wasn’t what he wanted.

He was calling, he said, mostly to thank me for the feedback, and to apologize.  He hadn’t taken the assignment seriously enough; he’d put it off and gotten started too late to proofread properly.  Mostly, he felt he’d let me and his classmates down by his lack of engagement, and he wanted to tell me he’d do better in the future.  He sounded confident and honest: frank in his self-assessment, but hopeful about the assignments yet to be completed.

I was stunned.

He wanted no reassurance, no help, no hand-holding.  He didn’t want the grade changed or softened or explained.  He agreed with me about everything that had gone wrong, and what’s more, he wanted to improve it.  He saw a consequence for his behavior and he turned it into an opportunity.

I don’t know how he’ll come out in my class, but I respect his character enormously, and I was convicted by his behavior.  How often do I simply let things slip when there’s no harm, no foul?  How often do I apologize as a response rather than an initiative?  How often do I look at where I went wrong with a lack of self-pity and an abundance of frankness?  How often do I perceive the inherent learning potential in a mistake?

His calm, his relative good cheer, and his honesty were refreshing.  He wasn’t trying to beat himself up or self-flagellate: he just wanted to say, I got the message loud and clear, and I can’t wait to be better.  What an attitude of value to the believer!  How better to receive correction from God?

We’re so used to seeing penitence and repentance displayed as self-pity, as garment-rending, as guilt.  But my student reminded me that a penitent heart can be calm and self-assured, frank and hopeful.  It was a refreshing reminder of how God’s grace permits me to confront the wrongs I do and the sin in my life: with an honest and holy shared understanding of what they are, certainly with some sorrow over what transpired, but with confidence and hope that I have the opportunity to do more, to grow, to be better.

May your own repentant heart be leavened with such grace.



One thought on “Frank and Cheerful Penitence

  1. Reblogged this on Maggie McKenzie and commented:
    I was recently watching a show where a teen character apologized for their bad behavior and the adult character stopped them and said they didn’t need to apologize and then gave them an excuse for their bad behavior. It irks me but lately I’m seeing it more often, especially in ‘christian movies’ or ‘family’ movies. It’s wrong and this delightful blog gives one good reason why we all need to learn to apologize- and with the right heart attitude. I hope you read it.


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