At times we tend to rationalize our guilt. We think that because an offense happened long ago we dont need to drudge it up again by asking the person we offended to forgive us. In the 9th of 19 articles on guilt resolution, Dr. Don Dunlap discusses the answer to this and several more commonly held misconceptions regarding reconciliation among Christians.
As Christians, we often conclude that because we committed an offense long ago we do not need to go back and ask forgiveness from the person we offended. We attempt to circumvent Gods mandate for a clear conscience by reasoning that the offended party has, by now, surely forgotten the offense. The truth is, the fact that we remember the offense vividly enough to deem it insignificant and forgotten is sufficient evidence that we need to take care of it biblically.
We should not bring God an offering unless we are willing first to be reconciled to our brother or sister.
God instructs us in Matthew 5:23,
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your offering.
This scripture points to the fact that God uses our ability to remember as a means to direct us as we seek to gain a clear conscience.
The barriers between people remain indefinitely until the offender asks for forgiveness.
Another commonly held misconception among Christians is the belief that it is unnecessary to ask forgiveness for past offenses if a broken relationship has grown more harmonious with the passing of time. A person who has been deeply offended often behaves politely towards his or her offender in spite of hurt feelings.
Even though the relationship may have improved over time, the offense still resides in the offended persons mind and the next time an offense occurs he or she may react against the unrepentant offender with the combined wrath of both present and past offenses. When we fail to deal biblically with seemingly small offenses they become barriers between people. These barriers eventually destroy relationships. When we confess and repent of past offenses, however, we take significant steps toward removing these walls.
What should we do if the person that we formerly offended has died? One possibility is to go to the nearest relative of the deceased person, repent for the offense that we committed and make any required restitution to him or her if they are indeed aware of the offense. (When we offend someone, the effects of the offense are rarely confined to one person alone.)
There are situations, however, in which the only person that we offended is no longer alive. No relatives are aware of the offense. Many Christians who have faced this problem have gained complete freedom from guilt by confessing their offense to God in the presence of a mature Christian, and then appropriating the forgiveness that God promises us in 1 John 1:9.
The writer of James 5:16 advises us,
Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
We must ask for forgiveness every time we commit an offense no matter how many times it occurs.
When we seek to maintain a clear conscience we often find that we commit the same offense over and over again. Jesus clearly charted our biblical course of action in His answer to Peter when Peter asked Jesus if there was a limit on how many times he must forgive a repeat offender. We can infer from Peters question the likelihood that someone was offending him over and over again. Regardless of how often we commit an offense, God requires us to go to the person we offended, repent and ask for forgiveness.
The possibility always exists that a person we have offended may refuse to forgive us when we repent and ask for forgiveness. We must then examine our hearts to be certain that we were sincerely repentant, that we accurately identified the offense that we committed and that we requested forgiveness in a spirit of humility.
Then we must continue to demonstrate our changed attitude by praying for the offended party and by doing deeds of kindness for him or her. Finally, we must trust the Holy Spirit to convict the other person of the sinfulness of his or her refusal to forgive.