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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

When You Don't Have to Say You're Sorry

Photo courtesy of nenetus, Free Digital Photos

Let me tell you a story, and then we’ll make some applications. Mildred thinks a terrible thought about Hazel. Later, Mildred realizes she never should have thought such an awful thing about her friend. So, Mildred goes to her and says, “Hazel, I want you to forgive me. I thought such and such about you. I am so sorry; will you forgive me?” Hazel is shocked and hurt that her friend would think such an ugly thought about her. She forgives her friend, but she goes home and turns it over and over in her mind. She cries while she’s putting the dishes into the dishwasher. She will never quite trust Mildred again.

I would imagine this has happened to all of us, at one time or another. A friend with a sensitive conscience apologizes for something ugly they only thought about us. Then, we, like Hazel, suffer hurt feelings.

There are times when it’s best not to ask forgiveness and not to confess our sins to people. (We should always confess them to God. 1 John 1:9)

Years ago, I heard a pastor explain it this way:
  • Confess public sins publicly.
  • Confess private sins privately.

It helped me. I hope it will help you, too.

Let’s go back to the illustration. Mildred should have confessed her “thinking sin” to God. “Lord, I don’t know why I thought such a nasty thing about my dear friend, Hazel. Please forgive me for having such negative thoughts.” Then, Mildred can purpose in her heart only to entertain right thoughts about her friend (repentance). Only Mildred and the Lord know about this sin. Hazel isn’t hurt, and their friendship continues to be a good one.

If, on the other hand, Mildred had actually gossiped about Hazel, her sin is now public. She would need to go to the person she gossiped to and asked her forgiveness. She would need also to ask Hazel’s forgiveness, if Hazel knows about the gossip. If the gossip took place in a group, Mildred should set the record straight and apologize to all the members of the group.

Any overt sin against another person is public sin and must be dealt with publicly.

Any “only thought” sin must be dealt with privately and forsaken. These include: ugly thoughts, pornography, dirty novels, coveting, and any other sin that takes place between the ears. We confess it to God and forsake it.

Some people have overactive, analyzing consciences. Let’s pretend that Mildred and Hazel have had a shopping date, and they talked a lot while they were happily looking through clothes and home furnishings at the mall. Hazel gets home, and she plays back every detail of their conversation in her head. Hazel decides that one of the statements she made might be taken two ways. “Oh,” she thinks, “I hope Mildred didn’t think I was criticizing her when I said . . . .” Hazel gets all worked up inside about what Mildred might have thought about what she said. Soon, Hazel picks up the phone and calls her friend. She confesses, “I am so sorry I said . . . . I hope you know I didn’t mean it to sound like . . . .”

Mildred vaguely remembers that particular conversation. Mildred thinks they had a wonderful time shopping together. Indeed, she enjoyed every minute! She’s a little shocked that Hazel has been going back over their conversation and analyzing every little thing. (Mildred hopes she didn’t say anything that Hazel might have taken badly.) Mildred assures her friend she had a great time and didn’t take anything she said in a bad way.

Here, we’re not talking about sin or about nasty thoughts. We’re talking about an overly sensitive conscience.

If Mildred had been offended, it would have shown on her face. Knowing Mildred, she probably would have straightened it out right then and there. If she had really been offended, it was her place to go to Helen and get it cleared up. (Matthew 18:15. The offended person goes to the one that hurt him.) This is the biblical way to deal with personal issues.

If they were clearly having a great time on their shopping trip, and there was no tension between them, then it was a successful ladies’ afternoon out. Helen has nothing to worry about. What’s more, Helen needs to be thankful for a friend like Mildred with whom she can have such a fun time.

It’s easy to remember when to say we’re sorry and when to say it only to God. These are the principles:
  • Confess public sins publicly.
  • Confess private sins privately.

May God help us not to hurt others by saying we’re sorry when we don’t need to!


  1. A former pastor used to say that the extent of confession needs to be as wide as the extent of the sin - the same thing you're saying, but in a different way.

    I do confess sometimes I can replay something I said and realize it could have been taken the wrong way. Sometimes I have gone back to explain about it. Most times the other person says, "No, I didn't think anything about it or take it that way," but just occasionally someone will say, "Well, I wondered about it - I am glad you cleared it up." I'm not so quick to go back now and explain, especially if it seems trivial, but if it keeps in my mind I try to seek the Lord about whether I should say something or not. How sorely we need to ask the Lord to "Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3) beforehand rather than trying to do damage control afterward.

    1. Thank you for sharing these things, Barbara. You expressed them so well. God bless you!


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