Can we think of anything we would rather do LESS than face someone we've hurt to confess and ask forgiveness? Dig a well with a spoon, maybe? We are at our most vulnerable when we must admit wrongdoing. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After they ate the forbidden fruit, they suddenly saw themselves for who they really were—sinners (Genesis 3:7). Facing God’s holiness, they saw their sinful state, felt naked, exposed before God. So they hid. We do that too, don't we?
Imagine driving in your car. You get cut off by an inattentive driver. Frustrated, you visibly make an obscene gesture. Not only that, you laid on the horn for a solid ten seconds, ensuring that everyone within a half mile vicinity knows you're ticked off. After a few minutes, you start to calm down. Soon, you feel badly about your outburst. You remember the Jesus fish on the back of your car and feel even deeper shame. You confess your sin to God and ask forgiveness.
As you continue to drive, you take the same exit as the offending driver. Interesting. Then you both turn down the same street. Hmm... Finally, you both enter the same gas station parking lot. Oh no. Decisions, decisions. Do you:
Most of us, if we're honest, would want to avoid that confrontation. Every version of the story plays out badly in our heads. To confess is to admit, "Yes, I was a jerk. Yes, I lost control. Yes, I wrongly took out my frustrations on you." Everyone has accidentally cut someone off on the road before, yet we act like other drivers are on a mission to develop a new version of bad driving! To confess our mistakes is to be naked in our shame and guilt front of another person—maybe even a stranger. Is that what the Bible tells us to do?
The Bible is very clear that we must confess our sin to God. Every sin is ultimately committed against God (Psalm 51:4). God is quick to forgive our sin, because forgiveness is what allows our relationship with Him to be restored (1 John 1:9).
Let me repeat that: Forgiveness restores relationships. With God, we know sin is a barrier between us and God. He wants that relationship with us so badly that He sent Jesus to die for our sins so that the relationship could be restored (John 3:16). We must confess our sins against God TO God (and, again, they are all against God).
Some may believe it's easier to save face by withholding the truth out of shame and guilt. They think it's better to not say anything, but that risks their relationship with the person. They may lose the friendship because they're too embarrassed to admit they messed up.
We cannot assume confessing the truth will always be damaging. We cannot assume the other person doesn't sense our guilt or the tension in the air. Truth may hurt, but truth can also set us free from emotional and relational baggage, clearing space for forgiveness, healing, and future growth. As painful as the moment of confession may be, it is the only thing that will remove the power of the sin (James 5:16).
Jesus wrapped up all the commandments into two: 1. Love God with all your heart, and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Loving our neighbors as ourselves means that if we want to be treated well, loved, told the truth, cared for, and our valuable things and people kept safe, then we should treat others likewise.
When we fail to live by Jesus’ standards, we sin against God and the person we've hurt. (Examples: Genesis 39:9; Psalm 51:4) Jesus never does anything to hurt us. In fact, He took on a whole lot of hurt to save us (John 15:13)—that’s TRUE friendship! We love others when we're willing to also take on pain and uncomfortableness to save a relationship with someone we've sinned against.
In most cases, yes, it's appropriate to confess our sins to the one we have sinned against—especially if the person is painfully aware of the sin too. The Bible gives many examples of people confessing their wrongdoing toward others. (See Genesis 50:17-18; Luke 17:3-4; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13.) While confession to others isn't a requirement for God's forgiveness, as we continue to grow in our faith, one of our goals ought to be making right what we've done wrong against others.
We tend to harbor unconfessed sin inside, and even if we have confessed to God, we still feel guilty. Matthew 5:23-24 tells us we should confess to the person we hurt before we come to the altar. Why? Because we will feel incomplete in our forgiveness. If we're honest, a refusal to confess to the person is accompanied by a sinful desire to guard our frail egos and maybe avoid a harsh judgment.
When we confess to God after confessing to the person we sinned against, we can do so with a clear conscience that we haven’t left a path of destruction or have lied to ourselves, saying, "It’s all good because I told God I was sorry." Sometimes—scratch that—OFTEN, God requires us to do the hard things (Romans 12:2; Proverbs 3:5-6).
That said, there's nothing wrong with asking God for forgiveness first if necessary because you (or the other person) aren't ready to talk yet and/or you need to ask God for wisdom and strength to carry out the next step (James 1:5). Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you in the process.
Yes, though it's rare. One occasion when confession to another person is inappropriate is when it would cause pain to the one you've sinned against. For example, if a girl looks with lust at a guy, she should immediately confess her sin to the Lord, but it's not necessary or appropriate to confess the sin to the guy. The guy had no idea a sin occurred; he will go on with his life just fine without knowing. A confession would, at best, it would be a confusing, awkward, out-of-the-blue interaction, and at worst, it would offend or give him the wrong idea, causing him to sin. In this case, the sin of lust is between the girl and God—period.
Basically, those directly impacted by the sin should hear the confession. For example, if someone sins in a way that directly impacts another person's life, they must confess to that person and seek their forgiveness. If the sin impacts a large number of people, such as a school or church, the person must then extend their confession to the affected community. The confession and apology should match the impact.
When you decide to confess, ditch the drama and unnecessary details. Be straightforward and simple: “God has been convicting me to confess that I _______. I am very sorry I hurt you. Will you please forgive me?” They might need some time to process what you have said and to pray about their response as well, and that's OK. They may decide that they won't forgive you, but you can’t control that. You have confessed, and you’ve given them the opportunity to forgive you. If they aren't ready to do so or say they never will, as hard as it is, you will need to accept the consequences.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a confession, treat the confessor like you would like to be treated in a similar circumstance. You can imagine how painful this is for them—how ashamed they must feel as they bare their soul to you. Don’t ask for details to twist the knife, and don’t withhold forgiveness as punishment.
If you don't feel like forgiving them right then, it’s OK to communicate that, but don't leave it there. Agree that what the person did was wrong, work through your feelings (over time if necessary), then offer forgiveness. They need that release and so do you. Like it or not, unforgiveness only injures you both (Proverbs 28:13). Your future relationship may or may not be the same, but even if a change or ending of the relationship is needed, God tells us we must forgive when asked (Matthew 18:22).
While God's forgiveness is not dependent upon our confessing our sins to others and/or attaining their forgiveness, God does call us to be honest and forthcoming with others regarding our failings—especially when our mistakes impact them directly (Proverbs 28:13). When we have offended, hurt, or sinned against others, our responsibility is to genuinely repent, genuinely confess and apologize, then sincerely ask for forgiveness (James 5:16). Whether forgiveness or reconciliation is granted is up to the other person. When someone confesses a sin against us, we should seek to forgive ASAP (Matthew 18:22).
Rhonda is an author, wife, mother, and mentor. She graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in English and Religious studies. She loves studying God’s Word for truth and wisdom and uses it as a compass and roadmap for her own spiritual journey. Rhonda believes in sharing the Good News and the hope found in Biblical truths with others. She uses her writing and mentoring opportunities (often with a pinch of humor) to do just that.