Repentance is essential to the Christian life, relational health, and maintaining an accurate worldview. It’s when we stop trying to make our dysfunction work and embrace the life-giving alternative to our sin that God gives.

When we express repentance toward someone we’ve offended, it’s typically called an apology. You would think that Christians would be better at apologizing than anyone else. When it comes to offense, when we’re the offended party, it can be challenging to remain objective about if an apology is bad or good, unhealthy or healthy, obligatory or genuine. Motives are also subjective and seldom all bad or good.

So what are the characteristics of a good, God-honoring apology? In his book, Peacemaking for Families, author Ken Sande outlines several features or markers of a good apology. Hopefully, these characteristics will help us repent when we’re the offending party and wisely discern when we’re the offended party regarding a conflict.

Address everyone affected.

If someone was indirectly or directly affected by your sin or noticed it, you should ask for their forgiveness. When you don’t seek forgiveness, you leave them believing that you think your actions are suitable to God, which can be particularly damaging for children and those you have leadership over. God often uses our repentance to show us our sins’ unintended, far-reaching consequences.

Consider a relationship scarred by sin, like a room infected by termites. Sin is a destructive influence that enjoys doing damage until it’s eradicated by forgiveness and repentance. An insignificant termite doesn’t exist in your home. Likewise, there’s no such thing as a “minor effect of sin” in a relationship.

Avoid using “but,” “if,” or “maybe.”

In repentance, the first thing we like to do is soften our admissions—however, you shouldn’t use words like but, if, and maybe in repentance. “Maybe” implies that you’re unsure if your actions are wrong, inviting a debate or conversation that will end badly and, regardless, isn’t repentance. “If” questions whether what you did was inappropriate, and “but” turns repentance into accusation.

The first thing you should do is admit that you violated God’s character. Repentance is about more than recognizing substandard behaviors. It’s acknowledging that you misrepresented God’s nature, whose name you bear when you call yourself a Christian. When you ask for forgiveness, you admit that you failed your life purpose to be Christ’s ambassador, as stated in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Don’t use completion verbs; instead, use verbs that end in “ing.” Avoiding completion verbs allows the offended party to discuss other parts of your offense without feeling like they’re adding to what you’ve already said.

Be specific.

One objective of repentance is to make forgiveness as easy as possible, which is never easy. You can do this by detailing your confession. Generic confessions are signs of insecurity. Everyone knowing what happened isn’t an excuse for succinctness. Hearing that you can specify with self-pity or blame-shifting is an essential indicator that you’re safe and that restoration is wise.

If listing specific ways you’ve offended someone to prepare for confession makes you feel ashamed, you should ensure that you’ve repented to God first and welcomed His forgiveness. The offended party’s forgiveness can’t replace God’s. When shame drives admittance, your remorseful emotions will overpower your forgiveness request and take center stage.

Acknowledge the hurt.

Sin has unintentional and intentional consequences. Repentance shows empathy and takes responsibility for the domino effect of our sin. However, repentance isn’t penance or groveling, which are emotionally manipulative. It’s an effect of other-mindedness. Refusal to express empathy shows the same self-centered emotions that made your sin seem rational at the moment. Consider how your sin affected the offended party spiritually, personally, emotionally, and socially. What impact did delaying your repentance have?

The goal of repenting is to represent God more accurately to the offended party. Psalm 56:8 tells us that God understands and is compassionate to our hurts. If our admittance is rooted in the desire to make God known every moment, our confession will prove that we’ve reflected on how our sin affected the offended party.

Take the consequences.

Repentance isn’t a negotiation or plea bargain. It’s not a time when you determine the acceptable terms for your sin. If your confession and repentance are genuine, then the need for consequences as punishment is missing. However, penalties can still play a penalizing role. It’s acceptable and keen for the forgiving party to request consequences. As the offending party, it isn’t your place to define what is disciplinary, trust-building or punitive.

Start by stating the obvious. If there are apparent changes you need to make, then say them in your repentance. Don’t say things like “If you insist, I will [blank] for you” or “I will [blank]” because they show change as a punishment. Instead, say things like, “Because I see my need to change, I will [blank.” Finish your apology by asking an open-ended question. Honest questions are an indicator of humility. They show that we’re not presenting a deal or contract but trying to restore someone. You could ask, “Are there other ways I can show my sincere desire to change?”

Change your behavior.

The repentant discussion isn’t the end of your journey. It’s merely drawing out the map and recognizing that it is needed. If you stop at a verbal apology, your lack of effort gives the offended party cause to believe that you didn’t mean what you said.

Part of embracing the Bible is weighing the cost of embracing and following sacrifice. It’s worth it. We give up our misery and sin to gain a transformative life of what God intended and heaven. However, sometimes it’s painful, and we want out because of our doubts. The same is true with repentance. It’s rooted in the concept of dying to self to find life.

“I’m sorry” isn’t the same as requesting forgiveness. “I’m sorry” is appropriate after a mistake. However, “will you forgive me?” is the correct phrase when we have sinned against someone else. Apologizing isn’t always easy, but it’s the right thing to do when you’ve wronged someone.

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