Too often we gloss over the wrong we do to others, and our sin continues to harm our relationship with them. True reconciliation comes only when we actively repair the wrong.
Wrongdoing (sin) is a disruption of right Christian personal relationships. By our personal wrongdoing (lying, getting unrighteously angry, harming somebody, irresponsible breaking of a commitment), we break or disrupt the love and the loving relationship that exists among us. If we are going to live the life of the Spirit, we cannot afford to ignore this.
When I first became a Christian though, I used to pass over my wrongdoing. If I did wrong toward another person, I tended to downplay it with the intention of doing better in the future. For a time, I would be more vigilant, kinder, more zealous to foster a loving relationship with the person I had offended. Eventually, I found that this approach wasn’t enough. While it is good to try harder, we cannot simply gloss over the wrong things we do. Wrongdoing leaves a deposit of resentment, hostility, mistrust, and fear in other people’s lives; it obstructs our loving relationship with them. However, that residue can be removed; those relationships can be restored; we can repair our wrongdoing.
“For those who love God,” Paul maintained, “all things work together for the good” (Romans 8:28), St. Augustine believed that – with the right approach – this applied even to sin. Often after some wrongdoing, we are assailed by fears that the situation can never be remedied, that the relationship can never be restored. But the Lord assures us that the relationship can not only be restored, but actually improve our relationship with the people we have offended. With faith and with openness to the Lord’s wisdom, we can approach every past act of wrongdoing in the knowledge that God can work to improve the original relationship.
How do we handle wrongdoing in our lives? The main way is by living righteously, by not doing things that are wrong. The Lord’s call to love one another and to keep the commandments has to be a fundamental, deep commitment of our hearts. We must want to be righteous people in whose lives there is no sin.
Without the desire to eliminate wrongdoing, it is pointless to desire the life in the Spirit. Jesus cannot be present where there is sin. When God, in his majesty and glory, comes to rid our lives of their impurity, we have a choice: if we reject sin. Our purification can be a joyful process. But if we cling to it and resist change, the process is very painful. It is not at all dangerous to come near the living God as a sinner – that’s salvation. However, it is dangerous to approach him as an unrepentant sinner, somebody who refuses to give up wrongdoing.
Steps to repairing wrongdoing
Other than living righteously, the major way of countering wrongdoing in our lives is to repair it.
Four important steps go into this process.
1st step: face personal wrongdoing honestly and responsibly
First, we need to admit or acknowledge our wrongdoing. In other words, we must face honestly all the wrongdoing in our life and take on full responsibility for it. Sometimes we shirk this responsibility by blaming and excusing. “Am I really to blame for that?” we wonder when confronted with a certain wrongdoing. That’s the wrong approach. Such debates sidetrack and often block us from assuming the right kind of responsibility.
Let me give you an example from my own life. In certain situations, I’m especially vulnerable to irritability. Midway through leading a long and difficult meeting, for instance, it’s very easy for me to address somebody sharply or in a hostile tone, to ignore a question or a comment that I don’t want to hear.
Before, I rarely took responsibility for these actions. If I spoke harshly to somebody, I’d usually feel somewhat guilty, but then the interior monologue would begin: “I couldn’t really help that. The meeting is long and I’m getting tired and it’s not really my fault. After all, the other person did say something stupid. I shouldn’t have to listen to things like that. It’s really his fault, not mine. I know I do have a problem with this sort of thing, but I didn’t choose to be irritable. Maybe my parents dropped me on my head when I was a little boy. It’s their fault, not mine.”
Eventually, I learned that self-justifications like this are needless and self-defeating. While there are many potential reasons and excuses to explain wring behavior, it is unnecessary – even harmful – to delve into them. Only one question is necessary: “Did I do something wrong?” If the answer is yes, then I need to take responsibility for it and admit the wrongdoing to the Lord and to myself.
Clarity in admitting the wrongdoing is important. We have to call a spade a spade, and to an agricultural implement. “I blew up again” is a clear admission of having lost one’s temper, whereas “I had trouble again with aggressive feelings” is too indirect. The more direct and blunt, the more honest and specific we can be about our wrongdoing, the faster we will progress in dealing with it.
2nd step: deciding to change and put away sin
The second step in repairing wrongdoing is repentance, deciding to change and actually changing. This involves turning away from our action as something that’s wrong and that we want to put away from us.
Often, we habitually fall into a particular kind of wrongdoing because we really haven’t renounced it in our hearts. Let’s face it, all of us like much of the sinning we do. Sexual sins especially are difficult to renounce because they give pleasure, but other things can be equally difficult to give up. Sometimes we much prefer losing our temper to actually controlling it and approaching things more constructively.
Sometimes we like to be resentful. But any real change in an area requires that we renounce the wrongdoing there. We have to say, “I want that out of my life.”
Regretting wrong behavior is not the same as deciding to refrain from it in the future. Paul points out this difference in speaking to the community at Corinth about something they did wrong:
I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance which leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.(2 Corinthians 7:9-11)
The Lord does not simply want us to be concerned about the fact that we did something wrong; he wants our concern (or our grief) to turn us to God and to the decision to change. Only then is our grief over wrongdoing godly; only then does it produce life and salvation.
There is an important distinction between feeling sorry for our sins and feeling bad about ourselves. When we’ve done something wrong God wants us to regret what we did, not to berate ourselves. Rather than centering on ourselves and on our feelings, we should center on our brothers and sisters and on the Lord – on how we have wronged them, and on the love we have for them. If we avoid introspection and maintain the right focus, then true repentance can be a life-giving thing in our life.
Avoiding the near occasion of sin is an old Catholic teaching that can apply here. While it seems to be a little dusty at the moment – this approach can result in significant personal change because it stresses taking practical steps to eliminate wrongdoing – steps without which our repentance isn’t full and complete. If we find, for example, that a relationship with a particular person usually leads into some form of wrongdoing, then we need to avoid that person or at least the situations which have in the past contributed to the problem. Or sometimes the step may be as simple as asking the advice of someone who can help us.
3rd step: admit wrongdoing to person offended and ask forgiveness
The third step in repairing wrongdoing is to ask forgiveness from other persons. If we have wronged someone, we must go to that person and say “I did something wrong, will you forgive me?” While it is always clear that we have to ask the Lord’s forgiveness, we often manage to forget our brothers and sisters. In addition, we need to remember the two elements that go into asking for forgiveness: “I did such and such thing, and it was wrong” and “Will you forgive me?”
In practice, I well know that step is not always easy. Some time ago, shortly before I was scheduled to give a teaching on repairing wrongdoing, the Lord began to call to my attention various occasions when I had wronged others but never asked their forgiveness. He showed me how one relationship in particular had suffered from this, and so I resolved to repair it. I got together with that brother and very evasively, with a great deal of difficulty, strove to arrive at the point. Finally I just blurted out, “Do you remember that thing that happened a year and a half ago?” His body immediately froze up a little. Overcoming the temptation to lapse back into vagueness, I screwed up my courage and said, “I know that I did this particular thing wrong in that situation.”
Then the temptation was to leave it at that. But I knew that the Lord wanted me to follow this up with a very easy four-word sentence: “Will you forgive me?” Fighting to get it out, I uttered one of the simplest – yet hardest – English sentences I ever had to say. But as soon as I spoke the words, as soon as I took responsibility for what I did wrong and humbled myself enough to ask for forgiveness, something changed in the situation. That brother then felt free enough to ask my forgiveness for his part in the situation. Since then our relationship has flourished.
One point of clarification here: we should ask for forgiveness for things we have done wrong, not for bad feelings that we have had. Every once in a while someone comes to me and says, “I just want to ask your forgiveness for the hostile feeling I’ve had toward you all this time.” often I’m taken aback since I neither knew about those hostile feelings nor prompted them by my actions. While it is sometimes appropriate to thus acknowledge to others the bad feelings we had toward them, this is hardly an automatic rule. I want to state very clearly that we are called to ask for forgiveness for what we have done wrong, not what we have felt.
But not only must we ask for forgiveness; we must also give it, as I learned shortly after this first incident. A guest came to stay with us for a time, and so I explained our schedule and asked him to be present at certain house activities. In the course of his visit, he missed coming to one of them. It wasn’t serious, but he had said he’d do something and he didn’t do it. Just as he was about to leave he approached me, obviously embarrassed, and asked me to forgive him. I in turn felt embarrassed and brushed it aside with “Oh, that’s all right.” Immediately afterward, however, the Lord clearly showed me that I had not done the right thing. The guest had been right in asking my forgiveness, even though the wrongdoing was minor. And, correspondingly, I should have forgiven him in such a way that he could actually have felt it, and not gone away wondering whether I was still disturbed about what he had done.
Though I still find it difficult to ask for and to give forgiveness, I know from experience that life springs from these acts. When people become free enough to ask one another for forgiveness, their personal relationships increase in love and trust. And that’s one of the Lord’s ways of giving grace.
4th step: make restitution where appropriate
The fourth and final step is restitution or penance. If, after asking for forgiveness, we can further repair a wrongdoing, then we ought to do it. For example, the expression of our repentance for having stolen money from someone should be to return it immediately or as soon as we are able. If we have damaged somebody’s name, if we have gossiped about him or slandered him, we must go to those who listened to us and somehow unsay these things in a constructive way. This requires care and wisdom, for we don’t want our efforts to make things worse. Nevertheless, part of our commitment to repair wrongdoing has to include making restitution where this is appropriate.
God can set us free to grow in trust, love, and forgiveness
Because we are human we often find ourselves guilty of wrongdoing. We are fallible human beings who have to expect that people will be doing wrong to us, and that we will be doing wrong to others. In the midst of that, however, we need to trust one another and experience love from one another. We need to know from our brothers and sisters – and they need to know from us – that our hearts are set on doing right, even when we do wrong. Above all, we need to know that God can set us free. If we approach this area his way, our personal relationships can be improved precisely in the situations where we have done wrong.
This article © by Steve Clark was first published in New Covenant, Volume 5, Number 1, July 1975.
Top image credit: photo of two guys sitting together, from Bigstock.com, © alexey sinelnikov, stock photo ID: 159072416
Steve Clark has been a founding leader, author, and teacher for the Catholic charismatic renewal since its inception in 1967. Steve is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.
Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.