Practical Wisdom for Applying Christian Teaching to Our Relationship with God and with One Another
The problem: wrongdoing
The world, the flesh, and the devil are at the root of problems in every sphere of life. They lead people to adopt values which oppose Christian values, think in patterns contrary to Christian thought, and suffer emotional disorders which have no place in God’s plan for his people. The Christians must learn to overcome these sources of their problems.
Yet the world, the flesh, and the devil also cause wrongdoing, a term which refers to specific human actions and attitudes which disrupt the Christian’s relationships with others and with God. For example, competitiveness, a value usually acquired from the world, is a personal difficulty which many Christians must struggle to overcome. However, competitiveness can cause wrongdoing if an aggressively competitive Christian harms others and offends God. The offender must then repair the damage. To be free of wrongdoing, Christians must understand it, prevent it, and learn how to repair it.
Wrongdoing is a form of sin. Like the term “the flesh,” “sin” is a much abused and misunderstood word. For example, many people associate “sin” exclusively with immoral sexual conduct. In reality, “sin” is a term with much broader meaning. The literal meaning of the words used for “sin” in both Hebrew and Greek is “to miss the mark.” Thus sin is anything which falls short of the divine standard. “Sin” refers to actions, thoughts, patterns of relationships, orders of society, and anything else not in accord with God’s plan. Paul uses the word in ways that suggest additional meanings: sin is a state or condition in which people live (Romans 6:1-2), and a force by which they are enslaved (Romans 7:8-14, 20). “Sin” may be a complex biblical term, but the core of its meaning is clear: to sin is to miss God’s mark, to fall short of the standard of his plan.
Wrongdoing is sin in the realm of actions and attitudes. The term “wrongdoing” does not refer to a general condition or state of disobedience, but instead refers solely to specific sinful acts and attitudes which disrupt right relationships. People live in a state of sin, but they commit wrongdoing. In other words, wrongdoing is an objective set of actions and attitudes for which each person must take responsibility.
Wrongdoing always disrupts a person’s relationship with God. It does not always disrupt the person’s relationships with other people. For example, a Christian who entertains a hostile thought toward a co-worker commits a wrongdoing against God. The person commits wrongdoing against the co-worker only if the person somehow expresses these thoughts to their colleague or to others through words or actions. However, a Christian’s neglect of personal prayer is wrongdoing because it disrupts one’s relationship with God, but it disrupts other relationships only indirectly. This distinction between wrongdoing committed against people and wrongdoing committed against God alone is especially important when the Christian repairs wrongdoing. The process of reconciliation is somewhat different when a Christian must repair damage done to other people as well as to God.
Wrongdoing is a product of the flesh, the world, and Satan. If wrongdoing is left unresolved, its consequences in the Christian’s life are serious and far-reaching. Unresolved wrongdoing spawns guilt, mistrust, suspicion, fear, and lack of confidence. Time alone will not repair the damage wrongdoing causes in relationships. As damaged relationships persist, they cripple the individual’s capacity to form additional relationships. Wrongdoing flows from the world, the flesh, and the devil – those underlying spiritual forces against God’s plan. But wrongdoing is also a destructive force in itself.
The solution: repentance and reconciliation
Wrongdoing consists of actions performed by people who are responsible for their behavior. Therefore, the simplest solution to the problem is for people to stop committing wrongful acts. A simple, obvious, effective solution – but unfortunately one that is difficult to implement. Even after a Christian resolves to do wrong no more, the struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil goes on. In this struggle, the person is likely to commit wrongdoing from time to time. What should the Christian do about it? And what about wrongdoing the Christian has committed in the past? Finally, what if the person is injured by wrongful acts committed by others? What Christians need is a way to repair wrongdoing. This is almost as important as preventing wrongdoing. In fact, repairing wrongdoing is a way of preventing it, for unresolved wrongdoing from the past breeds further wrongdoing in the future.
The Christian repairs wrongdoing through repentance and reconciliation. Repentance is a Christian’s conscious decision to change a pattern of thought or action which has caused wrongdoing. Repentance also means the act of taking a new path away from further wrongdoing. A Christian repents of a sin by deciding not to commit the sin again and then proceeding to live free from sin. Reconciliation is the process through which a person responsible for wrongdoing restores damaged relationships. These two actions – repentance and reconciliation – are God’s answer to wrongdoing. They are tools intended to help build and reestablish durable, loving, Christian relationships.
Four basic attitudes
Christians must adopt four basic attitudes if repentance and reconciliation are to function properly.
Eagerness to repent. Many people think of repentance as a gloomy business involving pain and humiliation. For some, fear of repentance constitutes the primary incentive to live righteously. This is a false image of repentance; it severely hinders the power of God. Christians should view repentance as a precious gift from God, a way to undo evil and to gain the freedom to live in righteousness. Christians should be eager to repent. Repentance is not a confession of worthlessness or an act of self-humiliation. It is instead an opportunity to grow in humility, submission, and love. Christians should leap at the chance to renounce wrongdoing and to be reconciled with God and the body of Christ.
Sin is sin. Christians should evaluate their actions with the attitude that there are objective standards for right and wrong. This notion is rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition, but modern society largely rejects it. Instead modern people tend to judge actions according to the person’s intention and sincerity. The individual’s subjective disposition thus replaces objective standards of right and wrong. Christians can hardly face up to wrongdoing in their personal lives if they lack objective standards to detect it. They must see the folly in modern moral relativism, accept the Christian standard for all conduct, and attempt to live by this standard.
Personal responsibility. For a person to repent and be reconciled, the individual must believe that he or she is personally responsible for his or her conduct. Unfortunately, people are endlessly inventive in attributing wrongdoing to something other than oneself. The questions we ask are not, “Was my action wrong? Did I hurt someone? Was I wrong?” Instead we tend to ask, “What forced me to do that? What can excuse me from responsibility?” For example, a man with a habit of ignoring his wife after arriving home from work may explain his conduct with the excuse that, “Well, I am under a lot of pressure at work and I find it hard to engage in trivial conversation as soon as I get home. Also, my father treated my mother the same way. This does not make it right, but can I be blamed if I picked up the habit?” This man does not evaluate his behavior against an objective standard of right and wrong conduct. Furthermore, he evades responsibility for action that looks very much like wrongdoing by seeking excuses in his childhood and job pressures. Until he accepts responsibility, he can neither repent nor be reconciled with his wife.
God’s love. To repent and be reconciled, the Christian must finally possess an unqualified acceptance of God’s love. Many people have difficulty with repentance because they see God as someone who punishes the slightest disobedience and withholds acceptance and approval from everyone who does not comply perfectly with his commands. Such people often hesitate to acknowledge wrongdoing because they fear God’s rejection. Sometimes they are harassed by severe guilt-feelings and self-condemnation. Often, such difficulties stem from a poor self-image, insecurity, and other psychological problems. But these fears also betray a distorted view of God. God’s love must flood the Christian’s heart. We must realize that we do not have to be perfect to be worthy in God’s eyes.
A procedure for repairing wrongdoing
While appropriate attitudes about repairing wrongdoing are important, Christians must also understand and agree upon a procedure if repentance and reconciliation are to work successfully. Reconciliation involves more than one person; all parties must know how to become reconciled. We shall now discuss a suggested procedure involving four steps in repentance and reconciliation. The first two steps – those of repentance – are taken by the person who committed the wrongdoing. The second two steps – the steps of reconciliation – are taken by both parties.
The first step of repentance is honestly admitting wrongdoing. The honest person possesses both the wisdom to discern his wrongdoing and the willingness to acknowledge his personal responsibility. Temptations, feelings, and mere mistakes are not wrongdoing; neither are actions which displease others without hurting them or breaking Christian standards of conduct. When Christians discerns genuine wrongdoing in their actions, they should acknowledge it simply and forthrightly without introducing the issue of blame and excuse. The indifferent husband sitting behind his newspaper should say to himself, “It is wrong for me to ignore my wife.” This type of honesty is the beginning of repentance.
The second step of repentance is to renounce the wrongdoing, decide to no longer indulge in it, and be sorry for having disobeyed the Lord and hurt a brother or sister. Renunciation of wrongdoing should be open, verbal, specific, and direct. An unspoken, ambiguous admission that a certain action was not the best of all possible alternatives is not renunciation. Neither does renunciation involve a broad, global category of actions. An appropriate statement of renunciation would be, “I have harmed John by joking about his speech impediment. This was wrongdoing. I decide now that I will never again joke this way with John, nor with anyone else.” Such a statement is clear and specific.
Often a person must follow his or her acknowledgment of wrongdoing with decisive action to prevent the wrongdoing from ever occurring again. For example, if Phil finds that he frequently makes cruel jokes when he drinks beer with a group of friends, he might decide to see his friends in other settings, or to have a non-alcoholic drink when he is with them. Such decisive action shows that the renunciation is genuine.
Sorrow for wrongdoing should accompany renunciation. This type of sorrow differs fundamentally from the self-condemnation that many people associate with the word “sorrow.” Authentic sorrow for wrongdoing is focused on the injured person, whom the Christian has harmed, and on the Lord, whom the individual has disobeyed. Authentic sorrow, an awareness of the damage done, leads to a deep resolution to repair the damage and to avoid further wrongdoing. On the other hand, a person entangled in the false sorrow of self-condemnation is more concerned with oneself than with the other person or with God. While authentic sorrow produces the resolve to act in righteousness, self-condemnation tends to produce despair, self-hatred, and self-pity. The voice of condemnation deceives: “You have harmed your wife. Once more, you have failed wretchedly. You are worthless.” Authentic sorrow for sin tells the truth: “You have acted wrongly. Your action has harmed your wife and you have disobeyed God. Now renounce the wrongdoing, decide to act differently, repair the relationships, and be free.”
Reconciliation: asking forgiveness
After a person has repented for wrongdoing, he or she must then be reconciled with the injured party. The first step of reconciliation is asking forgiveness. The person repenting should approach the person that has been harmed and say “I have done this thing (name it specifically) wrong. I repent. Will you forgive me?” The injured person will hopefully reply, “I forgive you.” Our experience in Christian community suggest this somewhat formal ritual of reconciliation because it allows the injured person to participate fully in the act of restoring the relationship. Together, repentance and forgiveness destroy resentments and guilt feelings and restore broken relationships.
The ordinary method of expressing regret for wrongdoing – an “I’m sorry” followed by “that’s OK” – is inadequate to bring about reconciliation. Wrongdoing is not “OK.” The person saying “I’m sorry” does not take responsibility for one’s action, and does not state that the action was wrong; and does not promise to stop behaving that way. Furthermore, a casual “that’s OK” implies that, “what you did wasn’t such a bad thing to do. Let’s forget it ever happened.” Yet the injured person has been injured. The offended person knows the other person’s action was wrong, and will probably not forget it. To cut through this destructive ambiguity, Christians should use a specific formula: “I have done this wrong. I repent. Will you forgive me?” “I forgive you.” The words can be somewhat different, but they should provide a clear order of reconciliation. It must involve mutual acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the resolution to change, and the gift of forgiveness.
Repentance is often difficult, but asking forgiveness is usually even harder. A normal inner resistance wells up within a person who is approaching someone to ask forgiveness. It is a resistance born of pride, fear of humiliation or rejection, and guilt. The Christian must overcome this reaction. Such an irrational emotional backlash is a sign, not that asking forgiveness is wrong, but that forgiveness is exactly what is needed. As reconciliation becomes a normal part of a person’s relationships, the inner resistance begins to fade.
Christians must also avoid scrupulosity in asking forgiveness. Sometimes a person’s insecurity will impel one to ask forgiveness unnecessarily. For example, if Phil has been harboring resentment towards John, and if this resentment is completely unrelated to any specific external acts by either man, then Phil should repent to the Lord but not to John. Asking forgiveness is appropriate only for legitimate instances of wrongdoing.
Sometimes scrupulosity appears as an over-apologetic request for forgiveness, a verbose and emotional plea. Says Phil: “Oh, I am so very sorry for having done this wrong thing! I know it was a horribly bad thing to do. I never want to do such a thing again. Please, please forgive me?!” Tone of voice and facial expression also help express anxiety, fear, insecurity. Such an appeal often springs from a fear that forgiveness will not be given. To counter this possibility, the person uses an emotional tactic to arouse the injured party’s feelings and compel that person to grant forgiveness. Such an approach is coercive, and its emotionalism is not helpful. In contrast, the person seeking reconciliation should ask for forgiveness in an honest, clear, calm, and concise fashion.
A person will ask forgiveness more readily and freely when he or she knows that the injured person will respond with love and acceptance. Therefore, Christians must learn how to give forgiveness as well as to ask for it. The simple, consistent offering of forgiveness for the wrongdoings of daily life will bring about profound healings in Christian relationships.
Many churches offer individuals the opportunity to confess wrongdoing to a priest or minister. A person who belongs to a church which offers sacramental confession can receive this sacrament in addition to asking forgiveness from the injured party.
Reconciliation: making up for wrongdoing
The final step of repentance and reconciliation is to make up for wrongdoing (restitution, penance). Most people naturally desire to help someone they have wronged. Such help is essential in cases of wrongdoing where one person has gained something at the expense of another. For example, if John has wronged Phil by irresponsibly failing to repay a loan, he should repent, ask forgiveness – and also repay the loan. If John does not repay the loan, he has not genuinely repented, and full reconciliation is impossible.
A person can also make up for wrongdoing when he or she has not benefited at another’s expense. For example, a man who has repented and asked forgiveness of his wife for verbally abusing her may well seek a way to make up for his actions. He cannot do anything to cancel his words. However, he can express his love for his wife by treating her differently. He might take her out for dinner, give extra help around the house, be more affectionate – or all of these things. These actions do not atone for the wrongdoing or earn forgiveness from God or his wife. Instead, the man, by treating his wife differently, is showing that he has effected a sincere repentance and reconciliation.
Applying the procedure
Christians can apply this four-step procedure for repairing wrongdoing in all circumstances. We can use it to immediately restore current relationships as soon as wrongdoing disrupts them. We can also use it to heal and restore broken relationships from the past, such as relationships with parents, relatives, and friends. Finally, Christians can apply this four-step procedure to their relationship with the Lord. When the Lord is the only offended party, the procedure is the same: honest acknowledgment, renunciation and sorrow, asking forgiveness, and making up for the wrongdoing.
When repentance and reconciliation are practiced correctly they yield both personal and communal peace. The people of God must be people who are able to work through differences and be reconciled with each other. Right relationships in the body of Christ depend on Christians’ ability and willingness to handle conflict and repair wrongdoing. Peace in the body of Christ leads to peace in the lives of its members. Repentance and reconciliation heal memories; uproot guilt, mistrust, and anxiety; and restore confidence. It cuts the cord which knits one wrongdoing to others, and gives greater freedom to all Christians in the body. Christians will continue to act wrongly. However, wrongdoing will cause no serious damage if we deal with it swiftly and deftly, through repentance and reconciliation. In fact, we can expect repentance and reconciliation to not only repair relationships, but to make them closer than ever.
Helpful Scripture passages:
- Be reconciled with your brother. Matthew 5:23-24
- Forgive and be forgiven. Luke 7:3-4, Matthew 18:15, 21-22
- Sorrow for sin leads to repentance, while ungodly grief leads to death. 2 Corinthians 7:8-11
- The Holy Spirit is the advocate, who convinces us of wrongdoing for our advantage. John 14:16
- Satan is the accuser who desires our destruction. Revelation 12:10
- The fruit of condemnation is death (Judas). Matthew 27:3-5
- The fruit of sorrow for sin is life (Peter). Matthew 26:74-75
This article © by Steve Clark was first published in 1975 by Word of Life, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. It was developed as a teaching resource for Christian covenant communities and prayer groups in the charismatic renewal movement.
Top image credit: photo of man kneeling on dirt road, © lightstock.com, stock photo ID: 60129
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.