Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve either directly or indirectly wronged someone and come to the point where you knew it was time to say, “I’m sorry“? And what do we do when “I’m sorry” isn’t enough?
It’s not easy to ask for forgiveness. It is the right thing to do and it takes humility and the right heart.
I deal with fallen pastors a lot. I’m a fallen pastor myself. Those who fall from ministry hurt a lot of people. Usually, our first apologies are insincere and riddled with defensiveness and self-justification. But eventually, we come around when we are humbled by God and do offer a sincere, “I’m sorry.”
But it’s not just fallen pastors who ask for forgiveness. All of us find ourselves in need of forgiveness from someone we know. Whether it was a harsh word we spoke, an action we took, something foolish we said and we didn’t mean to, an act that caused harm, or any number of things – we all will end up saying those two words at some point, and hopefully in the right way.
In this post, I’d like to focus on those of us who ask for forgiveness. Let’s look at a few things that might impact us before or during our act of asking someone to forgive us.
1. Our repentance
When we sin, the first place we should go and ask forgiveness is to God. God requires us to be holy before Him. We are to repent and walk in holiness. Am I saying we are to be perfect? Nope. I am saying that whatever stage we are in past our sin, we are willing to toss it aside and cast it before God, asking Him for help.
Repentance is turning away from the sin you committed. Let me give you am different example. Imagine a husband is an alcoholic. The problem is not drinking, but drinking to chronic excess. It has made things terrible at home and at work. The morning after he wakes up, he feels remorse and asks his wife for forgiveness, only to return to a drunken state the next day. Is that repentance? No, it’s remorse. Repentance would be casting his sin before God, turning to someone for help and doing what it took to get help. His wife would likely never believe his “I’m sorry” as long as he was constantly drinking.
Now, if he got help, support and guidance for a while and was doing well, then great. What if he fell off the proverbial wagon? I would hope his wife would be understanding for that moment and help him back on his feet and back to those who were helping him. Is there ever a time when enough is enough? When someone seems irresponsible and lacking in contriteness? Sure – people will be known by their fruits.
But it’s a difficult call as to when to give up on someone. But each of us are responsible for our own sin and the consequences they bear. We are responsible for what we do before God. It is great to be accountable to people and surround yourself with help if you need it. If you’re sorry for your actions, make sure you learn from them.
2. Why are we apologizing?
What is our motive for apologizing? There are a lot of bad reasons to apologize to someone. When we are young and playing with a friend or sibling and we take away their toy, we get in trouble. What does Mom say? “Tell them you’re sorry or you’re going to get a spanking!” Out of our mouth comes an apology motivated by fear. I guess we learned to say “I’m sorry” under duress.
Are we saying we’re sorry to save face? To keep a job? To justify our sin? Because that’s what we were taught? So we can continue on with our sin secretly? So others will think well of us? Just to calm the other person down?
Take time to search your heart, pray and read the Scriptures about forgiveness. Ask yourself, “why am I actually apologizing?”
3. Does this person understand why I’m apologizing? Do I fully understand why?
Sometimes when we go to someone to ask for forgiveness, they may not understand why we’re there. We may perceive we have wronged them, but they may not see it that way. In fact, they may not even have known we had said or done anything wrong to them. Even if that’s the case, explain it. It might be a good teaching opportunity. It might help you get to know them better. Best of all, it will open communication with them, especially since you thought you harmed them and you might not have in the first place.
The more dangerous thing is when we have sinned against someone, but we don’t fully understand how badly we have hurt them. Sometimes we do not understand the full implication or consequences of the sin we committed. At the same time, we may have done something to someone and didn’t realize we have done it. That’s even worse. The only way we can know is if they or someone else tells us.
Either way, don’t get angry if they show emotion at how badly you hurt them. Just listen. You’re there to apologize, not get angry at their reaction. If they are hurt, listen. Tell them you didn’t understand how badly you had hurt them. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t just about the words, it’s about the healing of a relationship.
4. Above all else, be sincere by showing love and grace
The words, “I’m sorry” have probably come to sound as meaningless to most people as the words, “I love you.” Have you ever had one of your kids (or if you can remember being a kid) say to you “I’m sorry” in that dragged out tone that tells you they are anything but sorry?
These two words ought to be spoken with the full import of the sin you committed against that person. It should be wrapped in the compassion knowing that you hurt them. It should be shrouded in the love and grace of Christ, hoping to restore a relationship that has been harmed. And it should always be rooted in the reminder of the forgiveness that Christ showed us.
Lastly, do it in person if at all possible. If you can’t, write a letter. Don’t cheapen an apology by texting it or sending a Facebook inbox message. If you are separated by miles and think a phone call will do, then try that. But face to face is the best policy.
Asking for forgiveness is a difficult thing. But when we judge our own motives, do it with the right heart, and express it with love and kindness, it can always be easier.
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Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.
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