Asking for Forgiveness Before Grace

Creating genuine reconciliation with others is not very easy and with some relationships, it can feel impossible. When we hurt another person or commit a sin against them, it is important that we do what we can to reconcile that relationship. Even when we do, we cannot control another person's actions. We cannot force them to forgive us, but we can do our best to seek genuine reconciliation.

There are a number of steps along the path of repairing a relationship, and some of the steps really must be in the right order. One common mistake is that we jump to the step of asking for grace before we have done the hard work of asking for forgiveness. What I mean to say, is that we ask the other person to overlook our offense without taking any responsibility for what we did.

I am prone to do this in my marriage. If I have sinned against Megan or failed to follow through on something I had committed to doing, I so often want to dismiss my faults and ask Megan to just overlook my offense. Now, sometimes the ability to overlook an offense and graciously move on is a virtue (Proverbs 19:11). But the advice of that proverb is for the one being offended, not the offender. If I have done the wrong, when I am being confronted, it is not my job to point out the virtue that would be found in them overlooking that offense. My job is to take responsibility for my sinful actions and then ask for forgiveness. If you have committed a wrong and need to pursue reconciliation with someone, here are four steps that might help.

Ask God to help

Before you start to talk with the other person, talk with God. Ask him to help you. Ask him to change your heart and ask him to soften the other person's heart. It doesn't need to be a long prayer, but can be quite simple. We can follow the example of Nehemiah, in which he is asked a question by the king. Before he responds, it says that he "prayed to the God of heaven (Nehemiah 2:4)." In the brief moments between the question being asked and a response given, he takes a moment to pray. We can pray like that.

A short prayer might be all you have time for, and it is a helpful habit to get into for any circumstance. Take a moment to pray for God's strength. In some cases, you may need a longer time of prayer. It might include some time of journaling, reading our Bibles or meditating on Scripture. 

There are times when I know I am in the wrong, but I can't bring myself to take ownership for what I have done. These are the times I need to take a bit longer to pray. Eventually, God convicts my heart and I am willing and able to honestly take responsibility for my actions and begin the process of reconciliation.

Ask for forgiveness first

Once you have prayed, you need to take the hard step of taking responsibility for your actions. Part of asking for forgiveness is admitting your failures. If you are unwilling to own your mistakes, then you are not truly asking for forgiveness. This is not easy. I have sometimes said to my wife, "I am sorry for the way you feel about what I did." That is not a genuinely repentant statement. It is subtly manipulative. When I say something like that, I am not apologizing for what I did, but the fact that the other person is mad at me for what I did.

In the process of reconciliation, we need to take the hard step of being honest about what we have done and taking responsibility for it. No, it isn't easy, but it is necessary. Own what you have done. Take responsibility. Sincerely repent. State your sin clearly and then ask for forgiveness.

Ask for grace second

We so often want to demand grace from the other person without taking responsibility first. I spent six years working in higher education, and sometimes I would meet with students who had broken school policies (ie. drinking alcohol, stealing copyright music, breaking visitation hours, etc.). When I worked at a state school, the students generally just took the consequence and moved on. When I worked at a Christian school, I was disappointed with the way some students would respond. It was not uncommon for a student to ignore their responsibility and say, "Aren't we all Christians? Shouldn't there be grace?" This was a misunderstanding of the gospel and its application to our lives.

God wants us to take responsibility for our sin through repentance and asking for forgiveness. Grace is always available, but we need to take responsibility first. Taking responsibility sometimes even means incurring consequences. Other adults don't hand out consequences to one another like parents to a child, but there are natural and sometimes even formal consequences for our actions. We need to take responsibility first and ask for grace second.

Remember the Gospel

You can own your mistakes and sin, regardless of how the other person responds because you can be confident that when you are repentant, God has forgiven you through Jesus. Even when people around us respond with condemnation, withholding forgiveness and grace, we can know that Jesus does not. "There is therefore now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1)." This doesn't change the pain you might experience from a broken relationship or the sorrow you feel when others don't offer to you the grace Jesus has freely given them, but you are still called to own your sin and failures.

You can do it, knowing that you have been made right before the God of the universe. He pardons you. He offers forgiveness and grace. He does not withhold reconciliation. You are still a blood-bought child of the King. You are still righteous in Christ. Remember the gospel. Speak its truth to over yourself. Recall your identity in Christ.

You can own your mistakes. You can own your sin. You can name it and take responsibility for it, all the while knowing that God still loves you. The gospel frees us to be real and honest about our failures. Own it first by asking for forgiveness. And then, being found in Christ, you can confidently ask for grace. But don't ask for grace without owning your sin first.