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The first place to begin with a question like yours is in your heart, as it relates to God. You do this by discerning what the Lord wants from you. All life problems begin vertically rather than horizontally because God made you in His image (Genesis 1:27).
Therefore, your desire is to learn how to practically apply the greatest commandment–to love God most of all–before you think about how to love others (Matthew 22:36-40). That is where Lucia and I began, and King David gave us insight on how to do that.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17
David gives us a vital template to think about when it comes to working through the relational brokenness of your sins. When He thought about what was of first importance regarding his past actions, he did not begin with the horizontal works of reconciliation. After many months of rebellion, the Lord started a persevering process of bringing David to Himself.
Though a backward glance at David’s shameful activities saw a lot of sin that had strained and broken his most intimate relationships, the most pressing thing on David’s to-do list was a right heart before the Lord. He sat in the rubble of his blunders and begged God for clarity on where to begin fixing the past mistakes (Psalm 51:2, 7).
God wanted a contrite heart because it would be David’s brokenness that would form the foundation upon which he could rebuild redemptive relationships. A genuinely repentant person is a broken and contrite person who has come to the end of himself (Luke 15:17), which is the beginning of God’s favor (James 4:6).
David thoughts were less on what he could do to fix his past mistakes, and more on how he had sinned against God (Psalm 51:4). He was singing through quivering lips, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”
He intuitively knew that the only thing that would please God (Hebrews 11:6) would be if he entirely rested in the works of someone else. David works ruined his family, and more self-reliant efforts would only make matters worse even if there were good intentions behind them (Isaiah 64:6). He needed a better move. Thus, he begged for God’s help.
As you move into your horizontal relationships, remember there will always be a gap between who you are and who people know you to be. You will need discernment on how to communicate your true self, which will include your past. Your gap does not have to be a bad thing. The issue in view here is not so much the distance because none of us are perfect: There will always be a distance between (1) the goal of Christlikeness and (2) your Adamic, pre-regeneration starting point.
Full-blown, uninterrupted, always accelerating hypocrisy is evil. No Christian should be on that side of the fence. Christians are regularly surveying the scene of their hearts while trying to cooperate with God in closing their unique distance between Adam and Jesus.
It is not wise to reveal the entire “gap” of your entangled heart to every person you have offended (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:18-20). It would also not be wise to tell everyone about your temptations, limitations, fears, and ongoing patterns of sin.
If your heart is contrite over your actions, you are willing to do whatever is necessary to make things right. There are levels of transparency you want to factor into all your relationships. For example, I would not walk up to a man on the street and tell him some of the things that I tell my wife. And I do not tell my wife every sinful detail that floats through my brain. Your levels of transparency should resemble something like the following:
Tip #1 – Make sure people are pressing into your life and that you are aggressively building relationships with them so you can be growing in a culture of honesty with those people. Your primary “aggressive relationship” should be your spouse.
Tip #2 – You know when you’re lying about something and hiding things from your spouse. Maybe there are things you should not share, but you should be humble and willing to examine your heart while holding your self-analysis loosely.
Tip #3 – Become biblically comfortable with the gap between who you are and your Christlike goals. You will find a template for Christlikeness in Galatians 5:22-23. Self-disclosure is a wisdom issue, but if you desire to reconcile your past with your spouse, the Lord will give you the illuminating favor you need on how to proceed (John 16:13; James 4:6).
Tip #4 – Daily seek to close the gap between you and your spouse, which may mean talking about past mistakes that are currently interfering with your one flesh union.
Tip #5 – Read, digest, and practice the content in my book, From Talk Trouble to Redemptive Communication. That is my most thorough and concise treatment on how to communicate well with your spouse. (Or anyone else.) The content of that book is the things Lucia and I began doing, which created the turning point in our marriage.
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. – Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, p.3
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” – Luke 19:8
It is normal when a person has an encounter with Jesus to begin thinking about past damages done while living under the influence of the prince of this world (Ephesians 2:2). That kind of desire reflects the restorative heart of Jesus.
1 – Carefulness about applying unique, historical biblical events.
It is a common mistake for a Christian to take a story from the Bible, map it over their lives, and do similarly what the historical figure did. In the case of Zacchaeus, he was motivated to rectify his past sins.
Though any passage of Scripture can have multiple applications, there is always only one point to a text. The point of the passage about Zacchaeus was his humility after meeting Jesus, not his unique-to-him works that flowed out of that humility.
Many people met the Savior, though not all of them went back and rectified their past sins. The Bible does not teach this idea in an absolute, mandatory way.
2 – You may (or you may not) rectify past sins.
Several years ago, I tried to find my high school English teacher. I was a royal pain in her stressed out rear end during my sophomore year. The reason I went back was to encourage her; I wanted her to know that her patience with me was not in vain. I also wanted to testify about the Lord’s goodness in this former rebel teen’s heart. I wanted her to know that God could make royal children out of royal pains.
My reason for going was not instigated by what Zacchaeus did. It was not because of any unresolved twenty-year guilt anxiety at work in my conscience. I did it because of my respect for her, my desire to glorify God, and the hope of encouraging her. Respect, glorify, and encouragement are good reasons to go back, but they are not biblically mandated ones. (Regrettably, I could not find her.)
It’s impossible to sift through all your past sinfulness to make things right. It’s also illogical, impractical, and unwise. Then perhaps there are situations where you can, and it is right to try to make it right with those you have sinned against at a point in the past.
3 – It may be possible to resolve current relationships.
If you have friends that you have sinned against and it is possible to reach out to them, you should reach out to them and ask for their forgiveness. Spouses, parents, and children are a few of these relationships where rectifying past sins.
4 – It may be possible to reconcile with those who are suffering because of you.
If you have sinned against someone and the person is still struggling, it would be humble and right to attempt to be forgiven by that person.
5 – If love cannot cover your sin.
There are times when love can cover our sins (1 Peter 4:8), and there are other times when it cannot. If love does not cover your sins to where you can’t be free from the guilt that accompanies your actions, you should try to pursue restorative forgiveness.
6 – If your conscience is condemning you for your past sins.
Seeking advice for conscience related matters is imperative. Many things other than the Bible can sway your conscience. You need to discern a weak, hard, dull, or sensitive conscience carefully.
Genuine conviction comes from the Spirit of God, and the Word of God informs it. I have seen where lousy religion created a false sense of guilt that was hard to discern from the Bible’s real sense of guilt. An instance of this is the person who wants to confess what they did as a way of paying for their sin rather than resting in the unmerited favor that comes from God.
7 – If you hear from the Comforter, Canon, conscience, and community.
Your fail-safe to know if you are hearing from God is the four-legged biblical decision-making-stool. If the Spirit, God’s Word, your conscience, and wise friends are on the same page, maybe you should seek to repair past wrongs.
8 – You cannot reconcile all relationships.
I have sinned against people and have sought reconciliation to resolve my misdeeds, but the other party was unwilling to cooperate. Another typical situation where you cannot rectify past wrongs is after a person dies.
Paul’s language in Romans 12:18 is so helpful when thinking about broken relationships. As much as depends on you should be the breadth of your responsibility to fix relational brokenness.
After Lucia and I came to a contrite place in our hearts and marriage, most of the stuff that was wrong vaporized. Many of those things were no longer critical. Then other things were shadows in the room or maybe pink elephants prancing for our review.
Here are two unalterable keys that will let you know if the power of the gospel is working in your relationships: (1) it is not a problem for you to overlook offenses and (2) it is not a problem to talk about the ones you are not able to ignore. You asked,
When you and Lucia realized you hadn’t asked for forgiveness for several years, how did you work out the gospel in that situation?
The Main Thing: The gospel rightly understood and practically applied (1) does not minimize sin and (2) it does not allow you to linger on it. When humble hearts are correctly dialed-in to the gospel, the obliteration of past sins happens.