When it comes to any relationship, someone is bound to eventually act or speak in ways that offend another. We’re human, we make mistakes, and the closer you get in a relationship, the more opportunity for hurt or offense. These offenses may be unintentional or intentional, little or big, and their consequences have a corresponding spectrum ranging from marginal to major. 

Confession is the act of acknowledging and admitting to an offense, and it’s biblical. Scripture directs us to confess our sins to God (1 Jn. 1:8-10) and to one another (James 5:16). But this is counter-intuitive to our human nature response. Fear of rejection and judgment coupled with inward shame and guilt prompt us to deny the offense and/or hide from others, just like Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8-10). Pride and self-justification promote strong rebuttals of the “yes, but …” variety (Gen 3: 12, 13), and/or minimizing the impact of the offense on others. 

Because of our tendencies to deny the act of confession, courage is required to confess to those we have wounded without self-defense, self-justification, or excuse-making (Luke 15:18). A good confession is more than “I’m sorry.” It includes clear ownership of the action, accurate acknowledgement of the impact of the offense on others, and a pledge to change. A good confession goes a long way to begin to repair a fractured relationship.

As a pastor, reflect on your relationships with your leadership team and your family. Although you may be tempted to name those from whom you desire a good confession, the purpose of your personal reflection is to consider where you can offer a good confession.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin. Ps. 32:5

The following five tips will give you direction as you pursue healthy confession as a rhythm in your spiritual life.

  1. Meditate on Psalm 51. If you want to read an example of a confession in Scripture, Psalm 51 is a great place to reference. In this Psalm, we read David’s prayer of confession after committing adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11-12). While our offenses may not be as dramatic as David’s, Psalm 51 teaches us how to make a good confession. What can you learn about confession from Psalm 51?

  2. Pray for insight into your heart. Even on good leadership teams, offenses do happen, and they are more likely to fall into the “unintentional” category. Because our leadership “style” makes sense to us, we quickly come to our own defense if we are challenged. However, consistent self-justification blinds us to how our words and deeds negatively affect others and creates tears in our relationships. Jeremiah 17:9 acknowledges how deceitful (and self-protective) our own hearts can be, which makes offering a good confession difficult. Have you taken time to seek God’s insight into how you relate to others on your ministry team and in your family? Are you open to God’s revelation of where self-justification has blocked your awareness of relationship tears?

  3. Consider the content of your confession. A good confession has two components: acknowledgement of guilt and dedication to change. Acknowledgement includes owning your actions or words and recognizing the pain of the other. Change requires commitment. Think about replacing statements like, “I’ll try better next time” with, “I am serious about making sure that [insert your offense] won’t happen again.” But make that claim only if you are truly serious about changing yourself! What stands in your way of confronting and changing yourself so as to improve your relationships? Who can assist you in remaining faithful to your commitment to change?

  4. Curb your “yes, but” tendencies. Nothing sabotages a good confession more than self-justification or offering an explanation for your actions prematurely. If your intent is to repair a torn relationship, then hold back your “yes, but” until you have made your heartfelt confession. If the offense is serious, you might need to restrain your impulse to dive into a detailed explanation to justify your actions. Under this circumstance, it is especially important to wait until the other person is in an emotional place where he or she is ready to consider your side of the exchange. If the offense is small or the result of a misunderstanding, you may be able to offer your account sooner. What reminders do you need to develop to help you curb your “yes, but” until an appropriate time?

  5. Conduct a bold relationship inventory. The beginning of a new year is prime time for new beginnings. Perhaps you can take the initiative to have a one-on-one conversation with members of your ministry team or family and invite them to tell you about what it is like to have you for a spouse, parent, sibling, colleague, or supervisor. The purpose of this discussion is not to beat yourself up, or blindly accept every criticism you hear, but to open yourself to feedback on how others experience you. If you are a person with a position of power, then you are also asking others to take a relationship risk. When another person risks offering you feedback that is challenging for you to hear, your response can be, “Tell me more” instead of a defensive, “Yes, but.” Bring curiosity to the conversation instead of self-justification. In some cases, you may conclude that your action was necessary, but necessity does not preclude listening well with an open mind and heart. Be sure to acknowledge the gift of truthfulness that your conversation partner gave to you. Then take this information to the Lord in prayer. Are you open to hearing how others experience you? Which team member or family member is secure enough in his/her relationship with you to speak their truth about you to you?