If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8
Forgiveness is never easy. The process can feel downright impossible when you have been wronged or betrayed by someone you love or someone who should have cherished and protected you. It feels unjust to extend an olive branch of mercy to someone who has hurt you.Several months ago I wrote an article about the physical, mental, social, and spiritual benefits of forgiveness, making the case that you should seek to forgive others in the same radical way that God has forgiven you as a Christian. I pointed out that God’s offer of forgiveness was purchased at the infinite cost of his Son, and therefore you also should be willing to forgive others, no matter the cost.
But there is another step in the process of forgiveness, one that often receives less attention: The asking. This crucial step of asking for forgiveness is just as important as forgiveness itself when it comes to redeeming broken relationships and healing the wounded people within them. Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin; God intended them to work together.
You might be wondering, “Can’t there be forgiveness without repentance?” Actually yes, there can be. I often encourage people to forgive others as a way of setting themselves free of the prison of bitterness and contempt.
However, this type of forgiveness is much more challenging, and it ultimately does nothing to restore damaged relationships or mend wounded hearts. Not to mention, forgiveness that is never sought or received does the transgressor no good.
Repent, Forgive, Repeat
Marriage is one theater of life where repentance and forgiveness frequently take center stage, acting as powerful binding agents keeping partners united through pain, sweat, and tears. For those of you who haven’t been married, I want to let you in on a secret: Husbands and wives routinely fail and let each other down!
The good news is that God created us with the capacity to repent and forgive. This is just one of the many ways that the marriage relationship symbolizes and points to the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:31-32).
In their book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Tim and Kathy Keller talk about how married couples gain a greater appreciation for the gospel by acting it out together on a regular basis.
Having to habitually repent to your spouse makes you more humble and aware of your sin than ever before. Being forgiven by your spouse (when you don’t deserve it) gives you a deeper sense of gratitude for grace. Forgiving your spouse allows you to play the “Jesus” role, actively shaping you in His image.
Ask, and You Are More Likely to Receive
In my counseling work with couples, I’ve noticed that one of the main obstacles to forgiveness is the glaring absence of a genuine request for it. Seeking forgiveness is certainly no guarantee that it will be granted.
However, it opens the door to allow the wounded partner the freedom to safely forgive. Genuine repentance indicates that a change has taken place within the heart of the offender, making him or her safe to love, forgive, and trust again.
Often the offender will skip over this step completely, engaging instead in complaints about a lack of forgiveness extended, justifications for the original wrongdoing, or defensive accusations against the wounded partner to “turn the tables” on him or her, thus avoiding the need for any confession. These types of behaviors only make it more difficult to forgive, and can even deepen the original wound.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have famously written about the top four predictors of divorce, established through decades of research. Known as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” they are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
In a blog article on the Gottman Institute website, Ellie Lisitsa explains some of the best ways to counteract these common marriage-killers in an article entitled “The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes.” The article explains that the best antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility. Lisitsa writes,
“Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying that the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.”
Gottman found that accepting responsibility effectively diffuses conflict and allows for the restoration of closeness and trust in the marriage relationship. His research suggests that when one partner is able to accept even partial responsibility during conflict and offer an apology, the couple is likely to stay married longer and also to enjoy higher levels of relationship satisfaction.
Why is Asking for Forgiveness So Hard?
Why is repenting to another person so difficult? It has obvious benefits for the relationship as well as for both individuals involved. It is a clear teaching of the Christian faith, which most of my clients hold dear. And yet, even though most Christians would agree that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that knowledge doesn’t always translate into an ability to specifically admit wrongdoing to another person and seek forgiveness.
Several key reasons for the difficulty can be identified. First of all, I find in my clients as well as in my own heart a tendency to view one’s own mistakes as “not really all that bad, after all”, while magnifying the faults and failings of others into “major sin issues.” Can you relate?
We minimize our own selfishness and maximize the thoughtlessness of others. We soothe any pangs of conscience by assuring ourselves of our good intentions. The Scriptures have a name for this phenomenon: pride. The Bible’s warnings about it are sobering, as in “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
The most insidious thing about pride is that it blinds us to the evil within our own hearts. In the greatest sermon ever preached, Christ taught his followers to “First take the plank out of your own eye” before seeking to remove “the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). The “plank” of pride is a deadly obstruction to our vision that must be removed through true repentance and humility.
Secondly, for many people, the idea of apologizing or repenting is terrifying because it makes them vulnerable to being hurt, rejected, or abandoned. Frantic efforts to explain away the offense or to justify the action that caused pain are really hostile defense mechanisms to protect a fearful heart from being exposed.
Repentance is a demonstration of trust that forgiveness will likely be offered, or at least that the offended party won’t take the opportunity to exact vengeance.
Finally, asking for forgiveness is hard because it accepts blame, which can threaten a fragile ego. If a person’s identity is built upon the notion that he or she is a “good person”, then admitting blame casts doubt on that misplaced source of inner security.
Accepting blame can feel like stepping off a pier into a raging sea of shame and self-doubt. No wonder some people go to any length to explain away data that might potentially expose their shortcomings. Defensiveness is a clear indicator of a wounded ego that relies on an unrealistic self-image to survive.
How to Apologize Well
We all intuitively judge whether an apology that is offered is sincere and genuine or whether someone is simply “going through the motions” in order to restore equilibrium or escape the consequences of their actions. The trouble is that each of us is unique, so our “apology radars” might all be tuned slightly differently. An apology that isn’t received as meaningful can actually do more harm than good.
One tool that I’ve found very helpful in this area is Dr. Gary Chapman’s “Apology Languages”. Much like Chapman’s famous “Love Languages”, these different styles of apology allow for helpful distinctions between the types of apology that various people find meaningful and sincere. An apology that is received as genuine is more likely to lead to forgiveness and to restore the relationship.
Below I list Dr. Chapman’s 5 Apology Languages, along with brief descriptions of each from his website. The Apology Language assessment can be taken for free at https://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/apology/. I often invite couples to both complete the assessment and discuss their results as a helpful way to effectively communicate true repentance to one another, making forgiveness possible.
Above all, “Expressing Regret” takes ownership of the wrong. For that reason, “Expressing Regret” is understood as a sincere commitment to repair and rebuild the relationship. The “Expressing Regret” Apology Language speaks most clearly when the person offering the apology reflects sincerity not only verbally, but also through body language. Unflinching eye contact and a gentle, but firm touch are two ways that body language can underscore sincerity.
If the apology neglects accepting responsibility for their actions, many partners will not feel as though the apology was meaningful and sincere. Many partners need to learn how to overcome their ego, the desire to not be viewed as a failure, and simply admit that their actions were wrong.
For a mate who speaks this apology language, if an apology does not admit fault, it is not worth hearing. Being sincere in your apology means allowing yourself to be weak, and admitting that you make mistakes. Though this may be hard to do for some people, it makes a world of a difference to your partner who speaks this language.
Request ForgivenessIn some relationships, a mate wants to hear their partner physically ask for forgiveness. They want assurance that their mate recognizes the need for forgiveness. Requesting forgiveness assures your mate that you want to see the relationship fully restored.
It also proves to your mate that you are sincerely sorry for what you’ve done. It shows that you realize you’ve done something wrong. Requesting forgiveness also shows that you are willing to put the future of the relationship in the hands of the offended mate. You are leaving the final decision up to your partner to forgive or not forgive.
For a mate whose primary apology language is making restitutions, no matter how often you say “I’m sorry”, or “I was wrong”, your mate will never find the apology sincere. You must show strong efforts for making amends. A genuine apology will be accompanied by the assurance that you still love your mate and have a desire to right the wrong-doings committed.
Each mate must learn the other’s love language in order to complete the act of restitution. Though some mates may feel as though all is forgotten with a bouquet of flowers, this may not necessarily work for all mates. Every mate should uncover what their partner’s main love language is and use that specific language in order to make restitutions in the most effective way.
For some individuals, repentance is the convincing factor in an apology. Some mates will doubt the sincerity of an apology if it is not accompanied by their partner’s desire to modify their behavior to avoid the situation in the future. It’s important to remember that all true repentance begins in the heart.
A mate must feel poorly for hurting their loved one and rely on God’s help in order to truly change. Admitting you are wrong creates vulnerability. It allows your mate to get a glimpse of your heart. The glimpse of the true self is assurance that the apology was sincere.
One important aspect of genuinely repenting is verbalizing your desire to change. Your mate cannot read your mind. Though you may be trying to change inside, if you do not verbalize your desire to change to your mate, most likely they will still be hurt.
Open the Door to Forgiveness
If you or someone you know is struggling in a relationship due to a lack of repentance and forgiveness, please reach out to me or another Christian Counselor on this site. Any of us would consider it a privilege to help you navigate this essential part of a healthy relationship in a way that honors and glorifies God.
Keller, T., & Keller, K. (2011). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.
Lisitsa, E. (2013). The Four Horsemen: The Antidotes. Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-the-antidotes/
“Admiring the View”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Conviction”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Free”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License