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Lately I’ve been doing some maturing. To put it more accurately, over the past two years, God has been teaching me a lot about myself and revealing to me some of the decisions in my past that were pretty huge mistakes. In short, I hurt people with my actions—badly. So now, in figuring how to right my wrongs, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about how much of my past mistakes I should go back and try to rectify, versus how much I should just stop worrying about them and move on from. I don’t want to open up old wounds for those I hurt, but I’m not sure how best to move forward.
Ugh. I really hate that feeling, Seth. That terrible, pit in your stomach moment, when you see clearly that what you did wrecked somebody else—and it hasn’t been resolved. I have many of those moments, especially as I look back at the years between 14 and 24-ish. Those were just particularly sarcastic, unkind, selfish, reckless, self-sabotaging years—and years that I’ve had to both ask forgiveness and feel grace for.
So I get where you’re coming from, Seth. And I think everyone reading this conversation understands the pain of regret and dilemma of figuring out how to move forward well.
Well. That’s the key word. Because, as you pointed out in your question, with every instance of hurt, there is a fork in the road. You can either choose to run away from the situation, stuff it back into your subconscious, and whisper little lies to yourself that “it wasn’t a big deal”—thus beginning the very human process of self-absolution. Or, you can choose the other road—the road that is terrifying, brave and fraught with the uncertainty of confrontation and the possibility of rejection. Neither option, to put it mildly, is fun.
Yet, God has been reconciling us to Him, over and over and over and (you get it) for the entire history of humanity. From Noah to Israel to Jesus to us (and countless times in-between), God has been crystal clear that He will do whatever it takes to make the relationship right, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard.
So, Seth, I’m not giving you any original advice. Rather, I’m passing along the wisdom God has given us: to choose always the path of restoration. The option to stuff it away and pretend it doesn’t matter is just not the example laid out before us, and it doesn’t represent the men and women God designed us to be. We are born in the image of an infinitely restorative and reconciling God. And the whispers that say things don’t really need to be set right are just lies.
So now, let’s lean into the truth and consider some practical thoughts for actually rectifying past wrongs:
Err on the Side of Restoration
At first, this heading may appear to be a rehash of what I just preached. But, what I’m asking you to consider now is a much more microscopic, situation by situation look at whatever God has been pointing out to you. For example (and this is actually a real one from my past), let’s say your quick wit and penchant for sarcasm really demolished a friendship because you didn’t know when to say when. Additionally, let’s say it was 15 years ago.
Even as I type this, I’m feeling cruddy and remembering all the ways in which I could’ve been a better friend, a better Christian—heck, just a better human being. Additionally though, I’m kind of thinking, “Well, it was 15 years ago, which is like a lifetime ago. Am I really beating myself up over something I did as a kid?”
Yes, I may be overly critical of myself, and the person I’m thinking about may not give a care in the world about the way I acted. I really don’t know. But what I do know is this: For every situation I remember, there are probably a dozen others I don’t. And part of how God refines us is by placing certain moments on our hearts that may or may not need to be sorted out for someone else’s well being—but certainly have to be dealt with on our end.
So don’t ignore the flashes of memory—and don’t try to over-logic yourself into or out of embracing them. Because there’s nobody better at fooling you than you. Err on the side of reconciliation and cover your bases.
It’s Rarely as Bad as You Think
My counselor, Bob, (who is really the guy who should get credit for 99 percent of what you read in this advice column) taught me a simple little trick he calls “stair stepping.” Bob asks you to envision a situation that’s hard for you to tackle: let’s say, making amends for some past mistakes. Then, he asks you to walk through the situation, a step at a time, imagining the worst possible scenario. It sounds counter-intuitive, especially to someone as anxiety-prone as I am—but it works. Because at the end of the stairsteps, you find yourself saying, “and finally, I’d be OK.” Let’s try that on your situation, Seth:
Step One: You talk to the person and apologize.
Step Two: They are mad at you, don’t accept your apology, throw a glass of water in your face and storm out of the restaurant.
Step Three: You are sad, confused, wet.
Step Four: You go home, are still sad for a while, but finally remember that you did all you could do and God is pleased with the effort. Plus, you are now dry.
Step Five: You’re OK.
Seth, that’s the worst that could happen. You could make it through that.
In reality though, the worst case scenario rarely happens. Typically, right before your friend throws the water in your face, he or she realizes that reconciliation is also important to them, and they begin to forgive the wounds of the past. Then, everyone’s OK. In any event, you can’t let fear of the conversation prevent you from having it. You must start down the stairs.
You are Only Beholden to You
You must remember that making amends is about your journey, not necessarily theirs. So as you prepare to have these conversations, remember that their response to your epiphany is not what’s important in this equation. What’s important is that you do the work of apologizing with all the sincerity and honesty you can muster. They may be furious, dismissive, uncaring, surprised, unresponsive or perfectly wonderful about the whole thing—and none of that really matters. What matters is that they now have all of the information they need to reconcile issues in their own life. You can’t expect them to walk the entire journey in the time span of a conversation that took you months—maybe years—to have. All you can expect is that your wrongs have been laid out and forgiveness has been asked for. Then, it’s theirs to work through.
It’s All About Grace
It’s all about grace is a term I stole from my friend Zach, who lives and preaches this as much as anything in his life. I want to close this conversation with grace, because the entire idea of making atonement and righting wrongs can skew toward a kind of binary, acceptance or rejection of you by God based on your actions mentality. The truth is, God loves you in spite of the ways that you—and I, and the friends you’ve wronged, and all of us—royally sin against others and ultimately Him.
Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t try you very hardest to do what’s right. But it does mean that even in the midst of you realizing you’ve made some mistakes, God has cared for you, taught you and loved you despite your past—despite my past.
This work of restoration isn’t about making God love you, it’s about showing the fruit of that love to people in your history. Good luck, Seth. I think I have a phone call to make …
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Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.