“I really messed up this time.” It’s a phrase none of us want to say, but sadly we all have to say it eventually. If these words have left your lips recently, you know how helpless you can feel after you realize how stupid your decision was that you are now regretting.
So what does the Bible say about messing up? One of the reasons God does not usually give us cookie cutter plans in the Bible is because each situation is so different. Maybe you messed up by having an affair, or yelling at your kids, or accusing your boyfriend of something he never even thought of doing. The range of human mess ups is endless.
Therefore there is not one specific step-by-step plan the Bible gives us when we mess up. However, there are certain principles and truths that can really help us apologize and respond in the best way possible as Christians when we really messed up.
When You Really Mess Up, Take Full Responsibility for Your Actions
There’s always outside factors that contribute to really messing up. The Bible affirms the reality of outside temptations, the negative impact sinful people can have on you, and the weakness of the human nature.
While there are many reasons for why we do what we do, there is never an excuse for sinful, out of control behavior (read, The Difference Between Reasons and Excuses). When you hurt people and you want to apologize for the way you messed up, it is counterproductive to explain all the reasons for why you did what you did.
The first and most helpful step is to simply take full responsibility for your actions. No matter what triggered your behavior, you are still the one responsible for your own behavior (James 1:14-15). Nothing undermines an apology more than when you blame the person you are apologizing to for the sin you are apologizing for. Even if your spouse said something really mean that made you really mess up, you can’t go back and apologize by saying, “Well, you just made me really mad because of what you said. I’m sorry for really messing up though.”
Own it. Don’t give a halfhearted apology by shifting the blame for your actions on anyone other than you. People can feel when you are doing this. It’s easier for people to forgive you when they know you are truly taking responsibility for your own actions.
When You Really Mess Up, Analyze What Happened Rather Than Being Dramatically Depressed
Once you finally come to your senses and you realize how badly you actually messed up, one common response is to beat yourself up and get really depressed for what you did. Mourning for your sins is appropriate to some degree. You have to let the sting of what you did set in before you will be ready to respond appropriately to your giant mess up.
However, beating yourself up is often self-defeating and is actually a very selfish act. Usually the motivation for being dramatically depressed after you really mess up is to make yourself feel better. We feel that the only way we can improve our own feelings is by making ourselves pay for what we did. After we make ourselves suffer for what we feel is the right amount of time, we might subconsciously say something like, “Well, I really made myself feel bad for that one. I think I suffered enough to be able to move on now.”
When we do this sort of self-harm, it’s as if we rob Christ of his suffering on the cross. We should mourn for our sins, but we should not try to pay for our sins by mourning. When you think you can suffer enough to pay for what you did, you are underestimating the weight of your sin and overestimating the power of your remorse. Christ alone is the key to true forgiveness (1 John 1:9, 2:2) and when you think you can suffer for your own sin you are not relying on him.
Secondly, putting on a dramatic show of depression and remorse doesn’t do anything to actually solve the problem that you are feeling bad about. Rather than pump the emotions, a better way to respond after you really mess up is to analyze what really happened that led to your dramatic fall from normal behavior.
Were you really tired? Did you have unresolved anger from work that you let build up and you took it out on your significant other? Is there a hidden addiction involved that needs to finally come to light? Do you have a running theme of losing self-control when you feel disrespected, or betrayed, or looked over? Do you really freak out when you feel cornered? Do you have a mental health issue that needs medical attention?
When you focus your energy and remorse on analyzing what went wrong rather than trying to show everyone involved how sorry you are through your dramatic depression, you will actually do far more good in repairing the relationships anyway. When you and others can understand what went wrong so you can avoid repeating that mistake again, things are more likely to go back to normal faster than if you just seem really sad about it all.
(For more on this read, How to Get Someone to Forgive You.)
When You Really Mess Up, Apologize, State Your Plan of Repentance, and Then Execute
The above step is so important because it is crucial in truly repenting after you really mess up. The Bible calls Christians to apologize, but it also calls us to take things a step further and actually repent. Repentance is about actions. It’s about turning the other directions from the sins that you’ve committed.
Therefore when you really mess up, one helpful three step path to follow when seeking to mend hurt relationships is to apologize, state your plan of repentance, and then execute. Like we talked about in point 1, it starts with taking full responsibility for your actions and not blaming anyone other than yourself. After you’ve analyzed the root issue for why you messed up so bad, you can then come up with a plan to avoid this from happening again. You can’t promise you will never fail again, but you can at least present your plan to the people you’ve hurt so they know you are serious about never sinning like that again to the best of your ability.
Lastly, after you’ve apologized and told the people you’ve hurt what you are going to do to learn and grow from this mistake, you have to then stop talking about it and go do it. If you really messed up because you were drunk and then you tell your family you are going to go to AA meetings, then go do it. If you had an explosive outburst of anger and you told your spouse and kids you will get counseling to get to the root of this problem, then go get counseling. If you told your boss you will be more transparent with the finances after you stole, then put the checks and balances in like you said you would.
You can’t control if people will forgive you and give you another chance to have a successful relationship with them. All you can control is your actions. If you show people you are serious about changing and making sure you don’t mess up like that again, usually they will try and work with you to make things right in the relationship.
How to Apologize and Respond When You Really Messed Up
In summary, when you really mess up there are plenty of truths in the Bible that are essential. First off, Christ and the gospel alone will bring true redemption and healing. Secondly, we need to always take full responsibility for our own actions. After we’ve apologized to those we’ve hurt, we should tell them our plan on how we will repent and then actually do it.
Lastly, if you’ve really messed up, prepare to endure the consequences for your actions and don’t complain. Complaining about your sin only makes it worse and it only makes it harder for people to actually forgive you. All you can do is apologize, learn from your mistakes, give people time to forgive and heal for what you’ve done, and keep moving forward in God’s grace.