Starting Over: Owning Your Past Mistakes

Pastor F. Remy Diederich of Cedarbrook Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin, continues his blog series on Starting Over by first owning up to your past mistakes.In my last post I talked about the first step to owning your past mistakes. That first step was to admit your guilt or the role you played in the past mistake. Today we pick up with steps two through four.

The second step to owning your mistakes is to express true sorrow for what you’ve done. People not only want to hear you admit to doing something wrong, they want to know that you feel bad about it.

Have you ever heard an apology that sounds like this… usually from an athlete or politician? “I’d like to offer an apology for what I said or did. I understand some people are upset about this. It was never my intention to offend anyone, but if anyone was offended then I’m sorry.”

What’s wrong with this apology? What’s wrong is that there’s no admission of guilt. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m sorry you are so overly sensitive that you were offended. What they’v done is manage to flip the guilt onto you. But just because they used the word “apology” doesn’t mean they actually apologized. Be careful you aren’t guilty of the “non-apology apology.”

The key to expressing sorrow is to do it with empathy statements. Empathy understands what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes. So an empathy statement expresses my sorrow in your terms.

If you think about it, there are many reasons I might be sorry that have nothing to do with your pain. I might be sorry I got caught, sorry for the bad consequences that impact me, sorry it made me look bad, sorry others are mad, or sorry you think less of me.

But if I’m not sorry for the hurt I’ve caused you, then it’s not the sorrow you are looking for. So I can tell people, “Hey, I apologized.” Yes, but you apologized for the wrong thing. It was a self-serving apology, and self-serving apologies just make people madder.

The kind of sorrow you want to hear from me is that I understand your pain; you want to know I spent time thinking about how I hurt you and how you feel about it. My apology needs to address your feelings if you are going to accept it. I need to carefully choose words that convey that I understand the impact of my actions.

For example: “I’ve been thinking about what I did and how it impacted you. If someone did to me what I did to you, I’d feel disrespected and abandoned. I’d feel taken for granted, and I’d want to shut them out of my life. I just want you to know I appreciate any hard feelings you might have toward me. They are totally justified. And I want you to know that I’m very sorry for what I did to you.”

If what I say matches how you feel, then your trust for me grows. You might say to yourself, “Amazing. He actually gets it. I finally feel understood. Maybe there is hope after all.” Okay, so now, you’ve admitted what you did wrong and you expressed sincere sorrow.

Ask Forgiveness

The third step in owning your failure is to ask for forgiveness. Too often, when we say we are sorry, we hope the person we offended understands that we want forgiveness even if we don’t specifically ask for it.

You see, asking for forgiveness is very humiliating. Asking for forgiveness puts you at the mercy of the person you offended and gives the other person control of the relationship. No one likes to give up control. You might have the guts to say you are sorry, but if you ask for forgiveness, they could say “No.” So we typically just say: “I’m sorry,” and leave it at that, or we might go as far as to say, “I hope you can forgive me.” But few of us come right out and ask: “Will you forgive me?” and then be quiet and wait for the answer.

Asking to be forgiven requires a death: a death to all of your self-preserving justifications and rationalizations. It’s a death to the perfect image that you try to project to people. But if you are willing to die, there is a good chance your relationship will be resurrected and you will be given the chance to start over.

Asking forgiveness is the only way you will know if a person truly forgives you. It’s the only way you know that you have a chance at starting over with them.

Rebuild Trust

The final step in owning your failure is to rebuild trust. If you’ve broken trust in a relationship, you are just kidding yourself to think you can start over if you don’t do the hard work of rebuilding trust. Forgiveness is free. But trust is earned and it proves whether or not your apology was sincere.

In July, Pastor Sten preached a sermon on confession and he said: “Genuine confession leads to genuine change.” That’s what I’m talking about here.

In the early church, Paul wrote to a group of Christians, reprimanding them for their immoral behavior. After they changed their ways, Paul wrote them a second letter saying this:

I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to change your ways. Godly sorrow brings a change of behavior …and leaves no regret…  -Corinthians 7:9,10

A change of behavior is the ultimate proof that I am truly sorry for what I’ve done and am serious about starting over.

If your failure involved money, you need to pay for the loss. If your failure involved lack of follow through, you need to start following through on your promises. If your failure involved immoral behavior, you need to provide people with assurances that your behavior will not happen again. Sometimes rebuilding trust involves doing things you’ve never done.

Now, I’ve shown you some bad examples of people owning their mistakes. I want to show you a good example. Marion Jones won 3 gold medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. She was considered the fastest woman in the world but was later stripped of the titles after admitting doping.

Marion has had to start over. She spent six months in jail, so she started over socially. She went bankrupt and had to sell her home, so she started over financially. She got divorced, so she started over relationally. And she lost her running career so she had to start her sports career over again too. It all started by her admitting, expressing sorrow, and asking forgiveness. Today she rebuilds trust by offering the “Take A Brake” program to help young people make better decisions. I like this quote from her:

It’s important for people to know that it’s possible to make a mistake in your life, but it’s what you do after the mistake that people are going to remember you by.  -Marion Jones

If you’ve made a mistake, I hope you want to start over. But before you do, own it. Before you can start over, you need to own your past. Some of you started over without owning your past, and you feel it. Something has never been quite right even years after your failure. You need to press pause on your life and own your past, so you can successfully move into the future.

Many of the issues I talked about in these last two posts are complicated. For example, one person asked me who you should admit your faults to. Should you tell the world like Marion Jones did? Marion told the world because she lied to the world. So it was appropriate to hold a press conference. The rule is, you only apologize to the people you offended or to whom your failure affected.

If you are unsure of what to do, contact me and I’m happy to meet and help you walk through some next steps. I want to help you get your life back on track.

If you would like to hear this entire message in podcast form, you can listen to it here. If you know someone who could really use this message right now, be sure to share this post with them. And if you’d like to talk about some of these issues, please comment below. I’d love to talk more about this important subject of Starting Over.

Starting Over: Own Your Past

Own your past. This is a vital step in the process of starting over as explained by pastor F. Remy Diederich of Cedarbrook Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin.We all make mistakes.

We all fall short. No one gets everything right all the time. So there will be many times in life where we need to start over. It might be in a relationship or with your finances. It could be with your education or career. Many people fall off the rails with God and so they want to start over spiritually.

So the question isn’t: Will you have to start over in life? That’s a given. The question is: WHEN will you have to start over and will you do a good job of it? But too often we sabotage our start with bad choices.

One of the ways we sabotage our start is by getting back in the game too fast. I talked about this last week. We rush to start over and fail to take responsibility for the mess we made, or take time to deal with the character flaws that caused our failure in the first place.

We get daily examples of this in the media. Right now, the NFL (National Football League) is going through a major public relations debacle for this very reason. People are sick and tired of big time athletes messing up, offering a quick apology, and getting back to business. They want these guys to take responsibility for their actions.

This is interesting to me because what we are seeing in the media today is the exact same thing we see in the opening pages of the Bible. Now a lot of people question the Bible, especially the Adam and Eve story. And I get that. I mean, how can a story written thousands of years ago have any relevance to us today? I think it’s fair to ask that question.

But when the ancient text exposes a fundamental flaw that we all know we have, I have to sit up and say…maybe there is some truth here. In fact, the Bible nails the human condition so well that it leads me to believe that it’s beyond the capabilities of any prehistoric psychologist. I’m convinced that it’s inspired by God… but I’ll let you come to your own conclusion.

I want to look at this story to see what we can learn about starting over.

The first two chapters of the Bible relate the creation of the earth, including the creation of the first two people: Adam and Eve. At the end of chapter two the writer proudly announces that:

The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.  -Genesis 2:25

In other words, everything was good. But then the story changes. God lays down one simple rule: to not eat from a certain tree. It proved to be too much for Adam and Eve. They both ate the fruit. And the story says:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden…And God said…Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” …The man said… I have to be fully honest here. I ate the fruit. Please forgive me.  -Genesis 3:8-12

Not quite. The Bible would be a lot thinner if Adam would have said what I indicated in the bold part of the text. This is what he said:

“The woman you put here with me–she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  -Genesis 3:12,13

Rather than come clean, Adam and Eve first tried to hide from God and then they pointed the finger at someone else before they were able to choke out an admission of guilt.

In my last post I said I was going to give you four principles for starting over. The first principle I gave you was: take time… take the time you need to fully deal with your past and your weaknesses.

Here’s the second principle: own it. That’s what Adam and Eve didn’t do. You see, you can’t start over well until you first own your past. Today, I want to break down what it means to own it.

I have four steps for you.

Admit

The first step to owning your past is to admit your fault… completely. What did Adam and Eve do? First they hid their failure, and when they couldn’t hide it, they blamed others.

There is a natural progression that happens when we fail. We usually don’t own it at first. First we hide it, thinking, maybe no one will notice. But inevitably people find out. They always do.

So our next line of defense is to deny it (I absolutely, unequivocally, and categorically did not do it). When that doesn’t work we blame others (well, yes, I did it but it was because of them).

I like what Andy Stanley says about this kind of behavior. He says when we blame, etc. we are smuggling our dysfunctions into the future. That’s a very visual way to think of how we refuse to deal with our character issues and choose to sneak them into our future story. Rather than confronting our failure and our weaknesses, we just bring them with us as we start over, hoping we get away with it. And then we wonder why things don’t work out for us.

What happens with your credibility when you drag your dysfunctions with you? It drops, right? People lose their faith in you and when they lose their faith in you it’s a lot harder to start over. They aren’t so sure they want to let you start over.

If you want to have any hope of a second chance with people you need to admit everything you’ve done as quickly as possible. Don’t admit 50% or 80% or even 99% of what you did wrong. You’ve got to admit 100% otherwise people feel betrayed when the rest of the truth finally comes out. You insult their intelligence and mock their trust in you. Even though you admitted some of the guilt, you are worse off than you were.

Now, I understand that it’s hard to admit your mistakes. It’s painfully embarrassing to be fully exposed in your weakness and failure. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid the pain and the potential rejection. But followers of Jesus have a distinct advantage here. Followers of Jesus know that they are forgiven… that their past isn’t held against them. God forgives them and empowers them to start over. So they can have the courage to admit their mistakes. If they step up to tell the truth, God will honor them and help them to get their life back on track.

Now, many times you aren’t the only one to blame. In fact, sometimes other people deserve the lion’s share of the blame. They might be responsible for 95% of what went wrong. This is where it gets tricky. You need to be careful because this is when it’s the hardest to admit your part.

Imagine a circle. Imagine that it represents who’s responsible for some failure. Let’s say, only 5% of the responsibility is yours. It’s so easy to obsess about the 95% and forget about your role.

But if you want to start over well, you need to own your part in it, no matter how small it is.

You have to get really, really honest with yourself and admit that you did have a role in your failure. For example, you might say to yourself “You know, if I’m really honest here, I saw some character defects in them a long time ago and I never said anything about it. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I wanted this relationship to work out so bad I just looked the other way but if I’m honest, I should have said something. I could have confronted them months ago and this whole mess would have never happened. I need to own that.”

My parents warned me about this. They told me not to buy that. Yeah, the owners took advantage of me but I shouldn’t have bought it in the first place. I knew better. I need to own my part of what happened. I stayed in the relationship too long and enabled their behavior. That’s my fault.

Yeah, they took advantage of me but, truthfully? I was greedy. That’s why I was there in the first place. I thought I was going to make a bunch of money so I ignored the warning signs. I can point the finger but to be fair, it was my greed that pulled the trigger on this.

The truth is: I could have left that party. I didn’t have to stay. I said I didn’t have a car but I could have called a cab, or a friend, or even walked. No one held a gun to my head.

The truth is: the coach cut me from the team because I wasn’t giving my best. Yeah, he can be harsh at times but I have to own my part. Sometimes I’m lazy. I was late to practice or skipped practice all together. I’ve gotta own that.

Okay, I spent a lot of time on this first step because if you cut corners admitting, you might as well not bother to do anything else I have to tell you. In my next post we will pick up with the next step in the process of owning it. If you can’t wait that long, you can listen to the entire message in podcast form here.