Instructions and Encouragements For The Offender: Seeking Forgiveness and Restoration

The following article is a handout for our congregation. It is a little more straightforward than my normal writing style. However, I hope it helps.

Problem: Whenever it comes to conflict resolution and relationship restoration, unfortunately the well of resources remains dry on specific and applicable methods on how a person can ask for forgiveness. Of course, we might hear trite sayings like, “you need to forgive them from the heart.” We might even hear Scripture quoted like, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Okay, sounds nice and easy. However, people often struggle with how to make a concrete application of this in their own lives without stirring up more conflict. What does seeking forgiveness and receiving forgiveness look like? What does it look like to go to a person and seek restoration, whether a wrong has been committed against you or you have committed a wrong against someone else? How can I successfully do so without making the problem worse? Oftentimes, we get neck-deep into a conflict and we are left paralyzed not knowing what to do, waffling back and forth between feelings of loss and feelings of self-justification. This will primarily deal with how a person can seek forgiveness from another in a way that will lead to healing.

Steps on Seeking Forgiveness and Giving Apologies

  •  Send an invitation to the person for a meeting – This invitation needs to be both vague and detailed. It should tell the nature of the meeting, ask them for a good time, and possibly even suggest a good place on your end. The method of communication you use at this stage is not as important as the next step. Feel free to use phone, email, text message, or even face-to-face. Here is an example of an invitation:
    1. To a fellow church member – Becky, I have been doing some thinking and praying. I feel like I need to confess some things to you that I have done against you. Do you have time in the next week to meet with me? Is there a specific date and time that would be good? I am free M, T, Th from 2pm-6pm and on Fri from 6pm-9pm. Thank you so kindly in advance.
    2. To a non-Christian – Jim, could you meet me for coffee on Friday at 7am? I’ve got some issues I’m working through and some things I’d like to get your input on.

90% of the time the conversation will just move on from there without trouble and you can schedule the meeting. However, if you get follow-up message from either saying, “What have you done against me?,” it would be beneficial to try to get them to meet instead of starting to elaborate. This could sound like something along these lines:

“Becky, I really cannot type those here — not because I’m afraid to, but because I don’t feel like I can do justice to the situation, honor you, or honor the Lord by just listing my wrongdoings here and asking for blanket forgiveness. You deserve greater dignity than that. Could you meet me at the park at 9am tomorrow?” 

  • Meet with the person face-to-face – There are some things email correspondence and text messaging cannot do. Even FaceTime has its limitations (specifically signal drops). Unless the person lives significant traveling distance from you, do everything (and I mean everything) in your power to meet face-to-face. This meeting should be between you and that person only. Some excellent settings could include: your local park, courtyards, porches, etc. Even check the forecast before you go to make sure weather will be appropriate during your meeting. These preparations might sound silly, but they are important in getting your message across. Make sure the place you pick will have few opportunities for interruptions and distractions. You might need to arrange childcare ahead of time if you have kids and they cannot be left alone. If the person is a family member, this step becomes easier as you could easily meet in your house when others are not around.
    1. In situations where face-to-face is not possible – In the scenarios where face-to-face interaction is not possible, the next best alternatives would follow somewhat in this order:
      1. Facetime
      2. Phone
      3. Handwritten letter
  • Go into the meeting prayerfully and prepared – The most vital aspect of seeking forgiveness and restoration are as follows: prayer and preparation. 
    1. Pray desperately leading up to the meeting, and be specific in what you ask – In your prayers, pray for the person’s receptivity. Pray that the Lord would give them the ability to forgive you. Pray the Lord would give you wisdom in speech. Pray for long-term restoration and that Jesus Christ would be honored. Especially pray that you would not slip into self-justification during your meeting. Most of the time, we can justify why we did something wrong to someone else. Maybe in your case, the person you sinned against sinned against you first. In this situation, go into the meeting with a stern refusal to bring up the sin of the other person. Preach to yourself, “This meeting is about the evil I have done, the sin that I have committed. I resolve by God’s power not to sit around and wait for a corresponding apology from them. I will not walk out of the meeting disappointed if they do not likewise apologize. Jesus Christ’s death has justified me so I have no need to justify myself. I am a whole person regardless of whether this person apologizes or not. Even if they do not apologize, Jesus Christ will see to it that every wrong committed against me will be vindicated on the final day. Therefore, I don’t need to seek vindication myself.
    2. Write out what you plan to say – Writing out what you say is a very powerful tool, especially if you consider yourself to be more on the ineloquent or brash side. Consider giving this to your spouse to proof-read if you are married. Also, consider giving it to a pastor, wise man, or wise woman in the church to read and ask them for both their thoughts and how the letter could be improved. You might even want to bring this and read from it at your meeting with the person to make sure you don’t get distracted or tempted to justify yourself. You might even have a copy for them to read along with you.
  • Address what you did specifically – In your talk with them, outline exactly how you sinned against them. This should be a comprehensive list of all the ways you sinned. Most of the time, there will be an initial sin and then some residual sins that came from that sin. Try to pray through this list and see where you might be missing anything. Here are some examples below:

Example #1 – Jean assumed the worst and did not seek clarification when she took Janet’s comments towards her in the wrong way 

“Janet, I heard this the other day and you might not have even meant it like that. However, I sinned against you when I heard it. I did this in the following ways.”

  • “I assumed the worst about you and did not lovingly seek clarification”
  • “I gave you the silent treatment and avoided you at all cost”
  • “I did not fulfill God’s Law to love you like I love my own body”
  • “I slandered you towards Ashley, who I’ve already gone to and confessed this to”
  • “I was selfish and self-justifying in holding onto my bitterness”

Notice how the first sin listed was the primary sin, but how many residual sins came out of that one sin? This is what you are aiming to uncover when you pray through confessing your sins. When human beings sin, it is rarely just in one way and at one time.

Example #2 – Billy lied to his wife about money he took from the bank to buy lottery tickets

“Honey, can you sit down for a second. I have to confess my sin to you. Last week when you asked about the missing money in the bank account, I pawned it off as a bank error. That wasn’t the case. I took that money and I bought lottery tickets with it. I did evil and I sinned against you in some very specific ways.”

  • “I lied to you regarding that money that was absent from our account”
  • “I denied you intimacy one night because I was scared to look you in the eye”
  • “I covered up that lie with other lies”
  • Address why what you did was wrong – While the above step might be commonsense to even to those who do not know Jesus Christ, this next step is unique to those who follow Him. It is the most important part of the conversation, but unfortunately the most ignored in most cases of seeking forgiveness (whether between church member or between family members). This is where you speak straight to the emotions of the person and explain the gravity of what you did. Let’s give some examples from the scenarios you just read above. Following that, I will give a justification for why this step is crucial for both the person who sinned and the person who was sinned against.

Example #1 – Jean assumed the worst and did not seek clarification when she took Janet’s comments towards her in the wrong way 

  • “I assumed the worst about you and did not lovingly seek clarification” – In doing so, I sheltered bitterness against you. I did not seek clarity or give you the benefit of the doubt like Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 13. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God and you.
    •  
  • “I did not fulfill God’s Law to love you like I love myself” – Jesus Christ laid down his life for you and bought you at a price. As being part of your church, I have a debt of love that I owe to you. I did not fulfill that debt of love. I did not seek your betterment. I did not initiate a relationship with you so that I can love you and pray for you better. I did not fulfill my role in this way. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.
  • “I slandered you towards Ashley, who I’ve already gone to and confessed this to” – In doing so, I acted against God by creating a false reality with my tongue. This caused damage to your reputation: damage I have sought to repair. For that, I mourn. God can create a beautiful reality with His tongue, He did so in Genesis 1. The reality I created was nothing like His work. It was ugly, damaging, and nothing but a lie. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.
  • “I was selfish and self-justifying in holding onto my bitterness” – I refused to come to you with this problem earlier because I kept justifying myself. I believed my own lies, telling myself, “I really was right for doing what I did and there was not truth in what she said.” For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.

Example #2 – Billy lied to his wife about money he took from the bank to buy lottery tickets

  • I lied to you regarding that money that was absent from our account – In doing so, I elevated money and the security it could bring over you and our children. This is idolatry of the worst kind. I looked at God like he was stingy and I also robbed our family of money we could have used to either give to others or enjoy the company of one another. I did not lead our family well as God has tasked me. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.
  • I denied you intimacy one night because I was scared to look you in the eye  – Thursday night I was not really sick. I knew the gestures you were sending me at the dinner table and I did not think I could look you deeply in the eyes after what I had done. Therefore, I lied again and said I was sick. In doing so, I denied you the martial rights Jesus Christ said are yours. My body is not my own, it belongs to you. It is the Lord’s gift to you and I kept it from you. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.
  • I covered up that lie with other lies – I intentionally have walked around the house in the last week in a state of constant deceit: deceit before you, deceit before our children, even deceit before the Lord. In doing so, I was a coward like my forefather Adam. I did not step up. I did not accept responsibility for what I had done and I did damage to our relationship. For this, I was wrong. I sinned against God. I sinned against you.

        You might be wondering, “Wow! This is deep? But is it necessary? Of course, so let’s see why.

 

Justification for this step in the reconciliation: Some of you might have heard this step for the first time. You might even question it’s necessity or effectiveness. Let’s address that issue: we’ll start with asking whether it’s necessary and then look to see its effectiveness. 

 

The Necessity of Explaining Why What We Did Was Wrong

  • It will help the person in their continual battle to forgive you – If the person you are apologizing to is anything like you and I, they will struggle over a long period of time with feelings of resentment. In acknowledging why what you did was wrong, you are helping them because they know you don’t just regret what you did, you have felt the gravity of the sin.
  • It will help you see the damaging nature of sin – In doing this, the Lord uses this situation as formative for the guilty party. As you search your own heart and what you have done, you are seeing firsthand the damage of how sin not only dehumanizes the other person, but also multiplies as you do it.

 

The Effectiveness of Explaining Why What We Did Was Wrong

  • The Lord has made us creatures that know and seek justification – We have an innate sense when things are wrong or when we have been hurt. Just look at the beginning of Romans 2. Paul argues that we intuitively know when people sin against us. Why? Because part of being made in the image of God is knowing when we have been violated. If you explain not just what you did, but why it was wrong, you are appealing to the very nature of human beings. You are showing them, “You matter! What I did to you matters! It did not escape God’s notice, and it does not escape mine either!” You are also giving them a gospel vocabulary they can use when they sin against someone else. It helps the emotions of the person because you are agreeing with God and with what they know and feel is correct – harm has been done. It soothes the emotions of the person to know they have been seen.
  • You will honor the person by doing so – In treating your sin with such severity, you will actually help the healing process in the person by showing them the honor they actually deserve because they are image bearers of God.
  • Ask for forgiveness
    1. Before asking for forgiveness, 
      • Detail what you want to be forgiven of – Tell them you are seeking forgiveness for all the things you just listed. You can concisely list them again if you like.
      • Explain the cost of the forgiveness you are seeking – Acknowledge to them the difficulty of forgiveness. What you are asking is hard. You are asking by the Lord’s help that they would forgive you for what you have done, to fight against resentment they might have in the future, to not bring it up to do harm to you, and to trust that Jesus’s death covered this sin. That is hard because even you know how much you want to fight back when people sin against you. Here’s what this could look like:
“Danny, I’m asking something very hard of you here. I’m asking that you would forgive me. This is no small request. I’m not asking that you would just say “yes” so that you and I can go on our merry way today. I’m asking for the kind of forgiveness Jesus has shown to you and I, and the only real kind. That even though I did evil to you, you would fight with all your might against future resentment that might come into your heart against me for what I have done. I’m asking you to throw the weight of my sin on Jesus Christ and not use my trespass against me in the future. That’s a huge cost, for I know what I did was horrendous.

 

  • Finally, ask, “will you forgive me for my sins against you?” – I’ve never been told “no” after this. However, if someone says, “no” or “let me think about it,” do not be afraid to let them leave that day to give them time. Depending on the sin, it might take some processing time from the person. This is true especially if the news of your sin is particularly earth-shattering to them.
  • Know the expectations of this after the meeting
    1. For brothers and sisters in Jesus – For those who are brothers and sisters in Jesus, the expectations moving forward would run along the following lines:
      • You are expected to be cordial and loving towards the other party – There is zero room for divisiveness and animosity in the Body of Christ, either actively in words and deeds or passively in silence and avoidance. Both parties should find the Spirit-given ability to be cordial to one another, greet one another, pray for one another, attend functions that the other person hosts, attend to the needs of one another, and speak kindly towards one another.
      • You are not expected to be best friends with that person – This kind of situation does not mean you need to be buddy-buddy with the person you sinned against. Sin does damage, and sometimes that damage takes weeks/months/years to unpack. 
      • You are expected to not bring up their offense(s) in front of them or others again – This is tricky, but it might be good to err on the side of caution here. There might be times where you mention or allude to the sin of another person against you for the sake of teaching others. If you do this, it should be done with great caution and with the permission of the person who sinned against you. The reason you likely want to avoid this at all costs is because many times the person who sins might be uncomfortable with you talking about it to others, but they feel indebted to you and say “yes” anyway.
    2. For spouses and family members – You have to live with each other. A larger degree of reconciliation will be expected from you than even what was written above. You are to walk in the manner of how Jesus Christ has treated you, not holding grudges with the other person, nor withholding duties/responsibilities each of you have regarding the other.
    3. For those who do not yet know Jesus – Keep in mind some of this will be a foreign language to them. It actually can act as a witnessing experience to them, where the Lord even uses your sins to work towards the salvation of someone else. Obviously, you would have to make some adjustments in the “why what I did was wrong” section. You wouldn’t say things like, “Just as Jesus has covered our sins.” If this is your employer and you’ve done something shady with the company, don’t expect this will result in you keeping your job or your position. There can be some natural consequences for our sins. Show yourself as a man or woman that trusts in the Lord by accepting whatever consequences this brings with it. You can even make that known to them.