Sin hurts ourselves and others, but through confession, we can have a new start.
Let’s talk about how we can find freedom, forgiveness and restoration with God and others. Let’s begin with the process of approaching God and restoring intimacy with Him. The need to confess our sins seems obvious. We have all sinned, and to say that we have not, is foolishness: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Most of us would never claim to be “without sin,” yet our reluctance to confess is, in essence, the same thing. When we go year after year and never confess our wrongs to anyone, we are deceived and void of the truth. Having taught on this topic for many years, I have noticed some recurring questions that deserve discussion.
Why do I need to dredge up past hurts? If I confess my sins to God, isn’t that enough? Most Christians acknowledge their need to confess sins to God, but many of us neglect confessing to those we sin against. Our admonition is in James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
Should I feel guilty when I sin? Feelings of guilt are the expected by-product of sin. Appropriate feelings of guilt are actually signs of spiritual health. If we sin and don’t feel guilt, something is wrong. It is necessary, however, to experience the two dimensions of guilt — mental and emotional. The mental aspect of guilt comes from cognitively acknowledging the wrongdoing. The emotional aspect of guilt comes as we realize our sin is not only wrong, but that it has also hurt others and hurt God. Unless we enter into the emotions of how our sin has affected others, we will probably not change. Developing a sensitive conscience allows God to speak to us when we have sinned. However, when we genuinely ask for forgiveness, we free ourselves from unhealthy, crippling guilt.
What happens if I don’t confess my faults? The Bible has sobering words for those who will not admit their need to confess. We may suffer some degree of four maladies listed in 1 John 1:9 — we are self-deceived, we are void of the truth, we call God a liar and God’s word has no place in our lives. Conversely, the wonderful by-product of confession is healing. Not only is guilt removed through confession, but relationships are healed.
I can’t seem to quit apologizing when I’ve sinned. How do I know if I have confessed adequately? Sin hurts ourselves and others, but through confession, we can have freedom from sin. Here are eight characteristics of a good confession.
- The scope of our confession should equal the scope of our offense. When we sin, to whom should we confess? If we do not openly sin against someone, then we don’t need to confess to that person. But God is offended so we always need to confess to Him. However, if I speak unwholesome words in front of my spouse and my children, I should confess to God, my spouse and my children. When our sin offends others, we must confess to them.
- Our confession is more meaningful if we take the initiative to confess before being confronted by those we offend.
- Acknowledge the technical aspect of being wrong as well as the emotional hurt. A good confession often includes comforting words like “I am so sorry that I hurt you by…”
- Be specific and include examples when naming the sin. Hurts don’t come in generalities.
- Say “I was wrong” instead of “I’m sorry.” The phrase “I’m sorry” implies little personal responsibility. It can suggest several subtle meanings that actually negate any admittance of being wrong:
“I’m sorry what I said offended you…” (but it wouldn’t have offended you if you weren’t so hypersensitive)
“I’m sorry you feel neglected…” (but you are overly dependent)
“I’m sorry you were upset at the party…” (but no one else seemed to be)
Using the phrase “I was wrong” acknowledges personal responsibility.
- After saying, “I was wrong,” refrain from saying anything else. Otherwise we are tempted to rationalize, justify or blame which only dilutes the confession. Even though what we are tempted to say may be true, it is inappropriate and counterproductive to discuss these issues at the same time we are confessing.
- For a confession to be complete, we should ask for the person’s forgiveness. It is now the offended party’s decision whether or not to forgive, but we should be free from guilt regardless of the person’s decision to forgive. We have done everything we could to right the wrong, so we should no longer be debilitated by feelings of guilt.
- In addition to admitting our wrong and asking forgiveness, it is appropriate to comfort those we have offended. Words of comfort may sound like this: “I know that when I criticized you it really hurt you. I feel sad about that. It really grieves me that I hurt you.”
As I reflect on my life, I ask the Holy Spirit to convict me of offenses I have committed so that they can be properly resolved. Sin is wrong and it hurts those we offend. A genuine confession should attempt to enter into the pain we have caused. We will look at more specific questions next time.
Don McMinn, Ph.D. (with Kimberly Spring)
Executive Director of theiPlace.org
The 11th Commandment: More Insights into the One Anothers of Scripture