Now That I Want Forgiveness, How Do I Handle My Past Sins?

Now That I Want Forgiveness, How Do I Handle My Past Sins

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When my friend learned about our lack of forgiveness, he 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? You couldn’t go back and cover all your past sins against each other at that time, correct? So how do you handle forgiving sin over such an extended period?” My friend’s question is vital because we all have a history with people. Sometimes, that history includes sinful interactions, and if you don’t have a sin plan that neutralizes sin at the moment, the accumulative effect of unconfessed sin can weigh heavy on any relationship. Suppose you come to your senses and want to resolve past conflict with someone. How do you go about it?

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Step One: Humble Heart

The first place to begin 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. Therefore, you work to learn how to apply the greatest commandment practically—to love God most of all—before thinking about loving others second most of all (Matthew 22:36-40). That is where Lucia and I began, and King David gave us insight into how to prepare our hearts properly. He gives us a vital template to think about when working through relational brokenness.

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).

After many months of rebellion, the Lord started a persevering process of bringing David to Himself. When David thought about what was of first importance regarding his past sins, he did not begin with the horizontal works of reconciliation. Though a backward glance at David’s nefarious activities saw a lot of sin that had strained and broken his most intimate relationships, the 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 past mistakes (Psalm 51:2, 7). God wanted a contrite heart because David’s brokenness with the Lord would form the foundation upon which he could rebuild redemptive horizontal relationships.

A genuinely repentant person is a broken and contrite person who has come to the end of himself (Luke 15:17), which starts with God’s favor (James 4:6). David’s 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.”  David intuitively knew that the only thing that would please God (Hebrews 11:6) would be if he rested in someone else’s works. David’s actions ruined his family, and more self-reliant efforts would only worsen matters even if good intentions were behind them (Isaiah 64:6). He needed a better strategy, so he begged for God’s help.

Step Two: Communication Levels

As you move into your horizontal relationships, remember there will always be a gap between who you are and what people know about you. You will need discernment to appropriately communicate your true self to others, including your past. Christians regularly survey the scene of their hearts while trying to cooperate with God in closing the distance between themselves and Jesus. However, it is unwise to reveal the totality of your entangled heart to every person you have offended (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:18-20).

If your heart is contrite over your past, you should be willing to do whatever is necessary to make things right, including speaking to the right people in an appropriate way about your sins. For example, I would not walk up to a man on the street and tell him some things that I tell my wife, and I do not tell my wife every sinful detail that floats through my brain. There are levels of transparency you want to factor into all your relationships. Your levels of transparency should resemble something like the following:

  1. God knows everything about you (Hebrews 4:13).
  2. Your spouse should know more about you than others (Ephesians 5:29).
  3. Your spiritual overseers should know less than your spouse but more than others (Hebrews 13:17; Ephesians 4:12-15).
  4. Some people in your local church should be your transparent friends.
  5. Other acquaintances, neighbors, workmates, schoolmates, and friends should know less than the above relationships about you.

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Step Three: Honest Talks

With a humble heart before the Lord and awareness of what to say to whom, these five tips will set things in motion as you work to reconcile your past with others.

  • Tip #1: Make sure people are pressing into your life, and you are aggressively building relationships with them to grow in a culture of honesty. Your primary, most intimate, and vulnerable relationship should be with your spouse.
  • Tip #2: Everyone should know when they lie about something and hide things from their spouses. Maybe there are things you should not share, but you should be 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. 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 and what to say (John 16:13; James 4:6). You will find a template for Christlikeness in Galatians 5:22-23.
  • Tip #4: Daily seek to close the gap between you and your spouse, which may mean discussing past mistakes that interfere with your one flesh union. Think through any pockets of silence between you and ask the Spirit to help you speak about things that create silence between you.
  • Tip #5: Read, digest, and practice our content on communication. I have written scores of articles on koinonia. Become fluent in these matters, which you will do by practicing what you learn daily.

Step Four: Past Sins

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 encounters Jesus to begin thinking about past damages done (Ephesians 2:2). That kind of desire reflects the restorative heart that God gives us. As you ponder your past and how you’d like to reconcile current relationships, these eight things will help.

1: Carefulness about applying unique, historical biblical events. Though any passage of Scripture can have multiple applications, there is always only one point to a text. The Bible does not teach absolute rectification of all past sins. It is a common mistake for Christians to take a story from the Bible, map it over their lives, and do similar to what the historical figure did. In the case of Zacchaeus, he was motivated to rectify his past sins. 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. Though not everyone who met the Savior returned and rectified their past sins, some did.

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. I went back 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 God could make royal children out of royal pains. My reason for seeking her out was not instigated by what Zacchaeus did. It was not because of any unresolved multi-decade guilt or anxiety at work in my conscience. I did it because I respected her, wanted to glorify God, and hoped to encourage her. Regrettably, I could not find her. It’s impossible to sift through your past sinfulness to make everything right. It’s also illogical, impractical, and unwise. Perhaps there are situations where you can, and it is right to try to make it right with those you have sinned against.

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.

4: It may be possible to reconcile with those suffering because of you. If you have sinned against someone and the person is still struggling, it would be humble and correct to attempt to seek forgiveness from that person.

5: If love cannot cover your sin. Sometimes, love can cover our sins, and other transgressions can bleed through like a stain under white paint (1 Peter 4:8). If love does not cover your sins to where you can’t be free from the guilt accompanying 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 must carefully discern a weak, hard, dull, or sensitive conscience. 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 genuine sense of guilt.

7: If you hear from the Comforter, Canon, conscience, and community. The four-legged biblical decision-making stool is your fail-safe to know if you hear from God. 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. Still, the other party was unwilling to cooperate. Another typical situation where you cannot rectify past wrongs is after someone dies. Paul’s language in Romans 12:18 is helpful when thinking about broken relationships. It should be the breadth of your responsibility to fix relational brokenness as much as it depends on you.

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The Main Thing

After Lucia and I came to a contrite place in our hearts and marriage, most of the wrong stuff vaporized. Many of those things were no longer critical and not worth discussing. Then other things were shadows in the room or maybe pink elephants prancing about for our review. 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?” Two unalterable keys will let you know if the power of the gospel is working in your relationships:

  • It is not a problem to overlook offenses.
  • Talking about the offenses you cannot ignore is also not a problem.

The gospel, rightly understood and practically applied, does not minimize sin and does not allow you to linger on sin. The gospel obliterates past sins when the humble heart dials into its functional efficacy. As you think about your life, relationships, and the wrongs that may have come between you and others, please reflect on these questions. Perhaps sharing with a friend will help you clarify your responses to them.

Call to Action

  1. Talk about how you would answer this: Is your primary objective to be right with God? What are your motives for making things right with God?
  2. Is your heart humbly exposed and vulnerable before the Lord? Is your heart contrite, meaning this is not a damage control move? Do you have a genuinely broken heart over a past wrong?
  3. Is your primary motive for cleaning up past messes because you love God more than anything else? Are you trying to pay for your sins, or are you resting in Christ’s payment on your behalf?
  4. How much distance is there between you and Christlikeness? Which way are you heading—away from Him or incrementally closing your gap?
  5. How much should you reveal about your past? Think through something you should share and shouldn’t share. Perhaps sharing your perspective about your illustrations with a friend would prove wise.
  6. Who should you approach to reconcile past wrongs?
  7. Is it possible to reconcile?
  8. Can you overlook the offense?
  9. Is your Spirit-illuminated, Bible-informed, conscience-affirming, and community advice telling you to go and reconcile?
  10. Are you doing all you can to live in peace with that person?

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