7 Mistakes We Make When Confessing Sin & Asking Forgiveness

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photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/25792994@N04/5424377128/">butupa</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">cc</a>

If you have ever wondered why, after mustering up the humility to confess your sin to someone and ask for their forgiveness, it was not well received and they didn’t forgive you, consider the following 7 mistakes and see if you made any of them. 

The following advice is taken, paraphrased and reorganized from Ken Sande’s The Peace Maker, chapter 6 “Confession Brings Freedom”.   I cannot recommend this book more highly to you, it is an amazing aid for working through the process of reconciliation and conflict resolution. 

So let’s get to it!

1.     Your confession of sin and asking of forgiveness wasn’t addressed to everyone affected by your sin.

One sure way to not be forgiven or not have your confession received it to make no confession at all! Or to make a confession to someone who wasn’t affected by your sin. It’s pretty hard for people to forgive someone who hasn’t acknowledged their sins and asked for forgiveness. Whenever we sin we want to make sure that we confess and ask forgiveness to everyone who has been affected by our sin. Because all sin is offensive to God, all sin must be confessed to God. Confessing to God should be the first place we start in seeking forgiveness.  But if we sin in word or action then we must confess our sin to God and the person or persons affected by it. 

If you don’t confess your sin and ask forgiveness to everyone who was affected by your sin, chances are they have not forgiven you.

2.     Your confession of sin included the words “if”, “but” or “maybe”.

The second mistake we make when confessing sin and asking for forgiveness is including the words “if”, “but”, or “maybe” in our confession. If our confession includes these words they qualify for the “token apology” award. This award is given to those confessions that are not confessions at all, rather statements that shift blame onto others for sins we’re responsible for. Here’s a few examples:

“I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you.”
“I’m sorry I hurt your feelings but you really upset me.”
“I’m sorry for that, maybe I could have tried harder.”

If you want someone to receive your confession and forgive you, don’t use these confessions! Make sure you don’t let an “if”, “but”, or “maybe”, into your confession. If you do, then your confession will turn into a token apology will only serve to satisfy your guilt, and communicate a complete lack of responsibility for the reprehensible actions you’ve committed.

3.     Your confession of sin was vague and ambiguous.

The third mistake we make when confessing sin and asking for forgiveness is making a vague confession. The truth is, if people have a hard time understanding what they are supposed to be forgiving, they will have a hard time forgiving. Furthermore, if we can’t communicate specifically what we’ve done wrong, then why should we even be asking for forgiveness? Take a moment, think about what exactly you’ve done wrong, and need forgiveness for, and confess it specifically. Don’t let your confession sound like this:

“I know that I’m not the best and nicest employee to everyone but sometimes the environment can bring out certain parts of me, you know what I mean?”

Notice the vagueness. It mentions no specific sinful attitudes or actions. Is it really a sin to not be the nicest employee? Does that really need forgiveness? Does not being the best employee need forgiveness? Furthermore, those things definitely don’t need forgiveness when the true fault lies in the work environment! Did you notice the blame shift? The person responding to this will not know what they are really supposed to be forgiving, and so they probably won’t. They’ll just think someone has a guilty conscious and wants to clear it up but hasn’t taken any responsibility. Here’s a better example:

“I know I’ve had a very negative attitude the last few months, which has led me to be critical of others and to disrupt the operation of this office. It was especially wrong of me to criticize your work in front of others yesterday.”   

You see in this confession the person SPECIFICALLY acknowledges their sinful attitudes and behaviors. When sinful attitudes and behaviors are specifically acknowledged people know what they are supposed to be forgiving, and they know that the responsibility has been taken. They might just forgive you! So rid your confession of all vagueness and confess specifically!

4.  In your confession you failed to mention the hurt you have caused them.

The fourth mistake we make in confessing our sin is completely ignoring the hurt that our sin has caused.  If we ignore the hurt we have caused someone, they will be less likely to forgive us because they have no reason to think that we understand how much we have hurt them, and no reason to think that we have any sorrow for what we have done. So acknowledge the hurt that you have caused, and express genuine sorrow over it! Some examples:

“You must have been terribly embarrassed when I said those things in front of everyone. I’m very sorry I did that to you.” 

“I can see why you were frustrated when I didn’t deliver the parts on time and realize that it made you look unprofessional. I’m sorry I failed to keep my commitment to you.” 

If your confession acknowledges the hurt that you have caused them and expresses genuine sorrow over it, they are more likely to forgive you. They can be confident that the consequences of the actions you’ve committed are not lost on you. They will see that you know you made a mistake, and you know your mistake caused inter-personal damage that cannot be fixed. They will see that you realize that it’s only by grace that you can continue to have a right relationship with each other. They will be more likely to forgive you. 

5.     In your confession you ignored the consequences of your sin.

This one is similar to the last but slightly different. Recognizing the hurt you have caused deals with damage done to the person, while acknowledging the consequences of your sin deals with understanding what your actions deserve. The Prodigal Son did this when he confessed to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (Luke 15: 19). Some more modern examples might look like this:

“You have every right to fire me because of what I have done, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“I understand if you never want to talk to me again for the way I treated you.”

If you acknowledge the consequences of your sin then the person knows that you understand what your sin deserves and they may be gracious to you. But if you ignore the consequences of your sin, it may cause them to think you are ignorant of what your sin deserves and make it more difficult for them to forgive you. So recognize the consequences of your sin in your confession.

6.     In your confession you didn’t communicate any intentions to make things right.

The sixth mistake we make when confessing our sin and asking for forgiveness is leaving out intentions to make things right. If you communicate to the person your intentions to make things right and never do those actions again, they are more likely to forgive you.

A few examples of communicating intentions to make things right:

“Beginning this evening, I will call every person I talked to and admit that my statements were not true.”

“It will take me some time to earn the extra money, but I will see that your property is repaired or replaced as quickly as possible.”

If you confess sin without communicating any intentions to make things right and not make the mistake again, you run the risk of the person thinking that your confession isn’t genuine. Furthermore, they have no reason to believe that you won’t do the same thing to them again in the future. But by communicating intentions to make things right and not make the mistake again, the person is more likely to believe that your confession is genuine, and that your going to do your best to not make the mistake again. If we don’t communicate intentions to make things right then we are asking for forgiveness and giving the person no hope of a change in us. But if we do communicate those intentions then we are asking for forgiveness and giving the person real hope of a change in us, demonstrated immediately by working for restitution.

7. In your confession you forced them to forgive you right then and there.

The last mistake we make when confessing our sin and asking for forgiveness is to try and force people to forgive us right then and there. Because our sin has caused damage, we can’t expect an immediate response of grace and forgiveness. So don’t force the person to make that decision or say “I forgive you” right then and there. Ask for forgiveness and allow time. Let them know that you fully understand that it will probably take some time before they are ready to forgive you for what you have done.

Here is an example of how to confess and allow time for forgiveness:

“I know I have deeply hurt you, and I can understand why you would have a hard time forgiving me. I hope that you will soon be able to forgive me, because I want very much to be reconciled.  In the meantime, I will pray for you. I will do my best to repair the damage I caused as quickly as possible, and with God’s help, I will work to overcome my temper. If there is anything else I can do, please let me know.” 

Which of the 7 mistakes do you make the most often?

May God bless us to be a people who make peace and reconciliation by acknowledging our sin and confessing it to God and others without “if”, “but”, and “maybe”, without vagueness, without ignoring hurt, without ignoring consequences, without ignoring restitution, and without forcing them to forgive us right then and there. And as John the Baptist said, may we "bear fruit in keeping with repentance!" (Matthew 3:8) Amen!