You blew it. You knew it. And be honest: this time, it was big time.
Maybe it was a major sin. Maybe it was that nagging sin. Maybe it was a brand-new sin. You can’t believe you did it, but you did. Now you feel terrible. The guilt is crushing. The regret is unbearable. The shame is real. You feel trapped. Stuck. Scared. Anxious. Your stomach is in knots. And you feel like the worst Christian in the world. No matter what you do, you just can’t move past it.
We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re there right now. When guilt and shame become overwhelming, what should we do? Let me encourage you in a few areas.
Confess your sin to God.
All sin is against God. And we must apologize to Him first and foremost. Jesus taught us to pray, “And forgive us our debts…” Sin is failing to pay God what He is due. When we refuse to give Him the loyalty, obedience, and worship that He deserves, we sin. The Nazis were condemned for crimes against humanity. But all of us are guilty of something much worse: crimes against Divinity.
As JI Packer points out, each time we sin, we are acting like tiny prodigal sons. We reject our Father’s way of life and run away as rebels. But like the prodigal, we can also come to our senses, humble ourselves, and return home saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in Your sight.” (Luke 15:18)
When you do confess your sins to God, be specific. It’s tempting to use a generic prayer, “Forgive my wrongs.” Instead, verbalize the ugly stuff. Name the nastiness. Describe the depravity. Identify the idolatry. Call it what it is – lust, greed, racism, selfishness, hatred, or anger. Be bold and blunt in your confession.
Apologize to the victim(s).
It’s not enough to ask forgiveness from God; we must also ask forgiveness from those we’ve injured. In other words, we need vertical forgiveness as well as horizontal forgiveness. For more, see Colossians 3:12-13.
If there was someone else wronged or hurt, seek out that specific person. If possible, talk to them face-to-face. Admit your wrong in full. Don’t minimize the apology by saying things like, “I’m sorry I hurt you…” or “I’m sorry but I did it because…” Delete the excuses. Drop the justifications. Be direct and clear, “I was wrong for ‘x.’ There is no excuse. Please forgive me.” This may also involve restitution or making amends. Be willing to do whatever is necessary to clear the air and pay them back.
Tell someone else.
Confession is not the end. It is a step deeper into our holiness. And sanctification is a group project.
Find a trusted Christian or elder to talk to. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another…” Share your burdens with another church member. When someone else knows your failures, it adds a layer of accountability. Putting it out there makes it more real. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Owning it out loud can serve as a deterrent.
You’re probably thinking, “But, I would be so embarrassed to admit that I said or did this thing.” Exactly. That’s the point. Humility is a virtue that you can’t practice by yourself. It requires at least one other person. As we lower our pride and confess our sins to others, we will discover that “God…gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Embrace your depravity.
The inability to move past a certain sin may point to a deeper problem. Robert Jones writes, “The expression ‘I can’t forgive myself’ often means ‘I still can’t believe I did that!’ This may express an underlying problem of self-righteousness and a lack of realistic self-knowledge.”
In other words, we tend to downplay just how wicked we are. We think we have a few flaws or failures. We don’t often see ourselves as God sees us – as selfish sinners. We don’t think of our hearts as “deceitful and wicked.” But we should.
Human sin is like those Russian Nesting dolls. Inside the big one, there are lots of smaller ones. That’s true for sin. Think of a man who steals. Behind his theft is covetousness. Behind the covetousness is greed. Behind the greed is discontentment. Behind the discontentment is idolatry. Peeling back the layers of sin will give us a more honest picture of just how bad we are and how badly we need Christ.
As Tim Keller so beautifully says, “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope at the same time.”
Focus on receiving God’s forgiveness.
I was talking to a lady once. She said, “Pastor, I need help. I did some things, years ago, and I’m just not sure God will forgive me.” I asked her, “Have you confessed it to the Lord? Do you know 1 John 1:9?” She said, “Oh yes, many times! I know that verse. But I’m still not sure He’s forgiven me.” To her shock, I then said, “Are you calling God a liar?” She recoiled, “No! I would never say that!” I then said, “If God says you are forgiven, who do you think you are saying anything else?”
After all these steps, there’s a good chance that you won’t feel forgiven. You won’t feel clean. But as tell my kids, sometimes you have to tell your feelings to “shut up!” Trust God’s rock-solid word more than your fickle emotions. He has promised to “cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” Even if you can’t feel it, you can believe it.
Sing songs of forgiveness.
After David confessed his sin with Bathsheba, do you know what he did? He grabbed his harp. Psalm 51:14 says, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God…and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” We should do the same. Find a hymn book. Tun on Spotify. Click on the radio. Sing “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” or “Amazing Grace.” At the top of your lungs, sing of God’s mercy and bask in its reality. Our God delights in lovingkindness, we should delight in it too.