Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments—our primary duties—are to love God and to love others (see Matthew 22:37–40). Anything less is a violation of His Law and called sin. When you have offended or hurt someone else, you commit a “crime” against God and the person you have offended. As a result, your conscience, or inner sense of right and wrong, will almost instantly condemn you, and you will feel guilt. Many people try to alleviate this guilt by blaming, denying, or excusing, but that is not the answer God gives for removing this gnawing, guilty conscience.
The Apostle Paul emphasized the importance of maintaining a clear conscience when he stated, “Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16). He also charged Timothy, his son in the faith, to keep a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith so that he could truly love others and stay on course in the Christian life. (See I Timothy 1:5–6, 18–20.)
Rather than blaming others, denying your wrong, or making excuses, pursue having a clear conscience at all costs. Gaining a clear conscience involves taking responsibility for your actions, seeking forgiveness, and making restitution.
The following steps provide guidelines for examining your heart and making things right with ones you have offended.
1. Identify those whom you have offended.
Consider your actions toward other people. Based on the standard of God’s Word, prayerfully evaluate your interaction with others. List the ones you offended and the offenses you caused.
- Have you stolen money or other items from stores, family members, neighbors, employers, or others? (See Exodus 20:15 and Ephesians 4:28.)
- Are there any hurtful words you have said or actions you have done to others? (See Ephesians 4:31–32.)
- Are you hiding any moral failures from those who should know? (See Proverbs 28:13.)
- Have you lied to anyone? (See Exodus 20:16 and Colossians 3:9.)
- Have you lost your temper with anyone? (See Ephesians 4:26 and James 1:19–20.)
- Have you damaged the reputation of anyone by participating in gossip, backbiting, or slander? (See Psalm 101:5 and Ephesians 4:29.)
- Have you failed to fulfill your family, work, or other responsibilities toward anyone in your life? (See Luke 16:10.)
- Have you held a grudge against anyone? (See Colossians 3:12–13.)
- Have you rebelled against people who are in authority over you or been disrespectful toward them? (See Romans 13:1 and Hebrews 13:17.)
2. Carefully choose the right wording.
When the prodigal son decided to return home and ask for his father’s forgiveness, he chose the wording of his confession ahead of time. (See Luke 15:17–21.) You should carefully and thoughtfully select the best words to use in asking for forgiveness. Make sure that the following insights and attitudes are true of your heart and are expressed clearly in your words.
Identify the basic offense.
Put yourself in the other person’s place. Relive the offense through his eyes, considering what he must have felt and thought. The offense usually involves an underlying attitude such as ungratefulness, disrespect, dishonesty, self-centeredness, pride, or laziness. Confess your sinful attitudes and specific actions, and ask for forgiveness for them.
Avoid giving sensual details.
This principle of avoiding graphic detail is also illustrated in the confession of the prodigal son in Luke 15 and in David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51. They identified basic offenses and avoided sordid details. Scripture warns, “It is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Ephesians 5:12).
In your confession, don’t mention others’ involvement.
Focus on what you are responsible for. If you explain all the circumstances surrounding the offense from your limited perspective, you can easily minimize your involvement and implicate others. There is no need to mention others’ part in the situation.
Demonstrate sincere repentance and humility.
Before you go to another person to seek forgiveness for an offense, repent before God and ask for His cleansing and forgiveness. Then as you go to the offended person, let your attitude and manner reflect the humility of one who is asking for something he does not deserve. Be careful not to hint that you “weren’t so bad” or intimate that “they were wrong too.” Do not defend yourself or make the following prideful statements:
- “I was wrong, but you were too.”
- “I’m sorry about it, but it wasn’t all my fault.”
- “If I’ve been wrong, please forgive me.”
The following is a sample of an excellent request for forgiveness: “God has convicted me of how wrong I’ve been in (fill in basic sinful attitude and offense). I’ve come to ask, ‘Will you forgive me?’” Wait quietly for a response.
Be prepared to make restitution.
Your confession should be accompanied by restitution for any personal loss that the offended person encountered in the situation. If you’re unable to make full restitution at this time, share your plans to do so as soon as possible.
3. Determine the proper time to ask for forgiveness.
Don’t wait until you happen to see the offended person. As soon as it is appropriate, find an opportunity to seek reconciliation. When you wait too long to ask for forgiveness, you tend to decrease the magnitude of your actions and increase the magnitude of what others have done.
Make a phone call or personally visit the offended person to ask when you can talk with him alone and at a time that is convenient. Be considerate of his needs and schedule. Don’t jump into the confession until he is able to give his full attention to what you have to say.
When you have asked him to forgive you, give him time to express forgiveness verbally. Hearing the words “I forgive you” is an important part of gaining a clear conscience. If he forgives you, express gratitude for his positive response. Let your attitudes and actions reflect your genuine repentance by not repeating the offense.
If the offended person is not able to forgive you at that time, respect his decision. He may need time to think about what you have said. He may have an emotional balance of guilt and blame that would be upset if he forgave you, or he may doubt that you are truly repentant of your attitudes and actions.
Respond to him graciously and, with the passing of time, demonstrate that you are genuinely repentant of your wrongdoing. As you seek God’s direction for your part in the relationship, you can enjoy the blessing of a clear conscience, knowing that you did what you could to restore the relationship.
Whatever it takes, seek to gain the treasure of a clear conscience. The Apostle Paul understood the importance of a clear conscience, and he challenged us with this instruction: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).