AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
Your relationship with God is like a marriage. Should a wife go announce it to the world every time she and her husband have a disagreement? Should she go posting their private conversations on the internet? No, she shouldn’t. As a human being, you have a lot of dark and sordid desires lurking within you. Maybe you’re jealous of the pastor’s wife because she always seems to have it together. Maybe you made some mean joke about her to your friends the other day and the Holy Spirit convicted you about it. What does God want you to do when He convicts you? He wants you to respond directly to the One who is talking to you. When God convicts us of our sins and then we run around telling everyone else about it, we are often going to end up creating a bigger mess. The pastor’s wife doesn’t want to hear about the cheap crack you made about her. She isn’t going to be edified by you burdening her with your personal insecurities and all the ugly ways that they express themselves. When the Holy Spirit convicts you about your language, you need to agree with Him that you did wrong, thank Him for the forgiveness you have already received through Christ, then leave the past behind you and move on. Should your friends later bring up what you said, that’s the time when you should say, “I shouldn’t have said what I did. It was wrong.” But this is only if they bring it up. Because they are as self-focused as you are, they will probably forget what you said and go on. There’s no value in you constantly raking up the past and getting everyone to refocus on your ugly mistakes.
This same principle applies to every sin you commit, no matter how big or small. Did you cheat on your spouse? Did you spread a false rumor about your friend? Did you steal from your boss? Did you tell a lie? The Holy Spirit is who you need to talk to. You need to get back into alignment with Him, and let Him tell you if He wants you to get other people involved. Don’t just go running amuck with your emotions and spewing confessions all over people who might not be equipped to handle them. Devastating someone else so that you can alleviate your sense of guilt is a very selfish act. Only God knows what the consequences of your public confession will be, and you need to rely on His judgment in this area. There are times when He will tell you to keep your sin to yourself in order to limit the damage it has done. Other times, He will instruct you to go apologize, ask for forgiveness, or do something else to make amends—like giving back what you stole, paying for property you damaged, or publicly correcting a lie.
ASKING PEOPLE FOR FORGIVENESS
Obtaining the forgiveness of other people does not change your spiritual standing with God in any way. It is solely the atonement of Christ—not the graciousness of some mortal being—that determines whether or not you are a child of God. We do not ask people for forgiveness so that we can restore our salvation or get God to like us again. We only ask for forgiveness when God tells us to, and our motivation for doing so is simply to obey Him. As far as you and God are concerned, it doesn’t matter how the other person responds to your request. If they do forgive you, it won’t make God like you any more than He already does. If they refuse to forgive you, it isn’t going to make God dislike you. Even if the person you’ve sinned against seems far more righteous than you, their forgiveness of you doesn’t carry any weight with God. Maybe you’re some dirty child molester and they’re some world traveling healer. God doesn’t care. He wants you to obey Him, and you have obeyed Him the moment you did what He said by asking for forgiveness. God’s approval of you is based on the atonement of Christ and how your soul responds to Him. If you sincerely care about pleasing God and you want to be in a right relationship with Him, then you are pleasing to Him. It doesn’t matter if every Christian in the world thinks you’re some immoral lowlife. When your soul submits to God and sincerely cares about pleasing Him, you have His approval. God is far easier to succeed with than human beings.
Depending on what you’ve done, the person you’ve wronged might be unable to forgive you right away. They might not ever be able to forgive you. The ability to forgive comes from God. It’s not something we can just pull out of our own selfish hearts. When people can’t forgive, they hold grudges. They shun you, insult you, and refuse to communicate with you. Some of them become so consumed with anger that they aggressively look for ways to hurt you back. To avoid placing yourself in a harmful position, you need to have boundaries in dealing with people who won’t forgive you (see When People Won’t Forgive You). To keep someone else’s bad choices from getting in the way of your personal walk with God, you must keep a firm grip on the fact that other people’s willingness to forgive you has NOTHING TO DO with God’s approval of you. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts you of sin, and He always makes instant reconciliation available to you. On Judgment Day, God isn’t going to go around interviewing your enemies before He decides if He’s going to let you into Heaven or not. We all sin in many ways, and we all downplay the seriousness of our own offenses while we withhold mercy from others. No human is qualified to stand in judgment over anyone else, for we are all sinful wretches who are completely dependent on God’s grace and mercy to save us. God’s opinion of you is the only one that will carry any weight in eternity. Whenever He convicts you of sin, you need to agree with His assessment of you and obey any specific instructions that He gives you. After that, you’re done and it’s time to put the past behind you. Do not try to confess the same sin over and over again, for this is only going to keep you stuck in condemnation.
KEEPING SIN TO OURSELVES
Suppose you cheated on your spouse. You finally respond to the Holy Spirit’s conviction, end the affair, and return to a state of sincerely wanting God to have His way in your life. Now that you are seeing your behavior from His perspective, you see how wrong it was and you feel bad about it. As time goes on, the guilt intensifies and you really want to confess what you did to your spouse because you are convinced it will take the load off of you. But what about your spouse? When you shuffle the rock off of your own shoulders, you’ll simply be transferring it onto theirs. You need to pray before you make such a move and make sure you have God’s authorization before you continue. Now let’s say that the Holy Spirit tells you not to say anything. Suppose He shows you that your reasons for wanting to unload are entirely selfish and that it will only end up greatly wounding your spouse. If you are going to obey God in this situation, you will need to keep silent about what you’ve done. But now a new trap opens up, for Satan isn’t going to sit on his hands in the face of such a juicy opportunity. He’s going to do everything he can to torment you about the past. He can see exactly why God wants you to stay silent, because he can see that your spouse would be utterly devastated and scarred for life if they found out. And now you’re trying to obey God by staying silent, which means all that excellent damage can’t be done. Well, this is no good. Satan is going to try and amplify the internal torment until your spouse can’t help but notice that you’re not acting normal. Then they’ll start asking you what’s wrong, and you’re cagey answers will only start their imaginations spinning off in a million negative directions. The more you hedge, the more they worry, and now there’s a whole new opportunity for Satan to create division and distance between the two of you. To avoid this whole miserable trap, you need to look to God whenever guilty feelings arise instead of trying to get peace through human channels. God is the One who gives you peace, and He is the only One whose opinion matters. If He tells you to keep some sin to yourself, then He will give you the tools you need to hold your tongue without destroying your insides. Unloading on your spouse is not going to resolve the theological issues that are keeping you stuck in condemnation. To effectively defend against Satan’s attacks, you need to be educated on God’s truths and learn how to leave the past behind you (see Escaping the Trap of Guilt).
We always want to look to God for guidance in life. Too often we decide for God what He would want us to do based on some verse we read in the Bible or on some sermon we heard. But God is not a static Being who always wants the same thing in every situation. He is directing a very complex Creation down here and there are plenty of times when He will call on you to act in some unexpected way. Just because you don’t understand why God is telling you to do something isn’t a valid excuse for not obeying Him. Imagine the mess it would cause if the soldiers in a battle all decided to ignore their commander’s orders and just go with their guts. The soldiers can’t see the big picture, only what is directly in front of them. Because their understanding is limited, they are not able to make wise decisions. God is the only One who can see into the hearts of every person, and He is the only One who knows what is best in the moment. Constantly look to Him to direct you in life and remember that pleasing Him is what counts. It’s not our job to try and control human affairs or turn every problem into a happy ending. We need to leave room for God to work in unexpected ways—doing things which often seem nonsensical and wrong to us. We honor God when we obey Him and defer to His Authority in life. We dishonor Him when we try to tell Him that we know the best way to handle a situation.