How to Get Back Up When You’ve Messed Up
A little while ago I really messed up. There was something I was supposed to do that I didn’t get done, and I felt really bad about my neglect. In fact, my mistake started weighing on me. I felt ashamed, because I disappointed the expectations of other people, and guilty because I disappointed not only God, but also my expectations of myself.
That episode brought me face to face with an issue every Christian must deal with sooner or later: how do you handle it when you’ve badly messed up? You sinned in some way, or you neglected a responsibility, or you got angry and said some things you shouldn’t have said. Whatever it was, you messed up. And now you really feel bad about it.
Feeling bad about messing up? Good!
Here’s the first thing you need to know: You are supposed to feel bad about your mess-up! James 4:9 says that sinners should “Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” Psalm 38:18b says, “I will be in anguish over my sin.” So, don’t feel bad about feeling bad! In fact, if you can sin and not feel bad about it, you are in a dangerous spiritual condition.
The Holy Spirit uses those feelings of guilt and shame to convict us of our sin and motivate us to do something about it.
That’s why when you feel bad about something you’ve done, you cannot afford to ignore that feeling. The guilt or shame you feel is like the fuel gauge in your car. It’s telling you something you need to know and that would be dangerous for you to ignore. With gas well north of $2 a gallon, I really don’t want to hear my car telling me that the tank needs to be filled again. But it’s something I need to know so I can properly respond to the situation.
That’s what feelings of guilt do for us when we’ve messed up. They let us know we need to do something to correct our transgression.
So, what do you do? Just keep on feeling bad? Or do you simply blow it off and go on about your business as if it never happened?
Of course, neither of those alternatives is the right one. We need to get God’s prescription for how you get up when you mess up. Let’s start with what I think is a very encouraging word about our mess-ups:
You can be blessed in spite of your mess!
Psalm 32:1-2 (NKVJ) Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
This passage talks about what happens when we mess up, but the first thing it says is “blessed is the man” who has messed up but been forgiven. To me that’s a very encouraging message: you can be blessed in spite of your mess!
When we handle our mess-ups the way God commands, we can actually end up being blessed rather than condemned. So, how can we deal with our mess-ups in a way that brings blessing?
1. Acknowledge your transgression
Psalm 32:5 I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
When I mess up, the first step to getting back up is to acknowledge my mess-up, first to myself, then to the Lord.
I must acknowledge that what I did was wrong. I can’t afford to excuse it or minimize it or overlook it, or say it wasn’t as bad as what somebody else did. Those are all ways of avoiding having to deal with the fact that I messed up and need to change.
If you ever catch yourself saying something like, “I know it was wrong, BUT…” watch out! That comforting excuse will keep you trapped in your sin. If it was wrong, it was wrong, and there’s no “but” to it.
I need to actively confess my sin to God in prayer. Then, if there is another person I have wronged or hurt or offended, I need to go to that person and confess my fault and ask for their forgiveness.
2 Corinthians 7:10a For godly sorrow produces repentance…
Once I have acknowledged and confessed my mess-up, the next step is repentance. To repent simply means to turn from the wrong way to the right way. Real sorrow about my sin always involves repentance.
Suppose I write to the manager of a store in the mall and say, “I learned in church that I’m supposed to acknowledge my sins. So, I want to confess to you that last week I shoplifted from your store. And by the way, in order to save on postage, let me go ahead and confess the shoplifting I plan to do this week as well.”
Obviously, that doesn’t work! Sincere confession always includes the desire and intention to turn away from my sinful actions, and not continue engaging in them. It’s not enough to just admit my sin. I must also determine, with God’s help, to quit doing it.
3. Set things right
Exodus 22:6 If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.
When my mess-up does damage to someone else, my repentance is not complete until I have done all I can to make restitution.
For example, if I had shoplifted goods from a store, just confessing and repenting are not enough. I need to restore to that store owner the value of what I stole.
In the same way, if I said something nasty about someone, so that their reputation was affected, I need to do all I can to undo that damage. That might mean going not only to that person, but also to others who heard my slanderous comments, and publicly apologizing for what I said.
Whatever it takes, if I’m going to have a clean slate after repenting for my mess-up, I must do all I can to make appropriate restitution for the damage I’ve caused.
4. Forget it
Philippians 3:13a Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind…
When God forgives, He forgives completely! 1 John 1:9 says that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That means once we sincerely confess our mess-up to the Lord, it’s gone! It’s no longer on the books. God has forgotten it, and so should we.
Don’t let the weight of old sins hold you in bondage. When the guilt and shame of sins you have confessed and repented of come back to your mind, remember that on the basis of 1 John 1:9, you are forgiven and you are clean.
Here’s a truth that has often helped me when I’ve felt guilty about past sins: The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins to bring us to repentance. The devil condemns us for our sins to keep us in bondage.
Whenever you experience feelings of guilt or shame about sins you have already confessed and repented of, that is condemnation and it is from the devil, not from God. The only reason to remember past sins is to learn how to avoid them in the future.
5. Move on
Philippians 3:13b-14 … one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Once you have confessed your mess-up, received God’s forgiveness, and done your best to make appropriate restitution, put it behind you and move on. Fix your gaze resolutely on the positive things ahead of you, and press toward them.
And don’t let other people hold you in condemnation. No matter what people say, refuse to dwell on past mistakes, reach forward toward your future, and don’t look back!
Since God has forgiven and forgotten your mess-up, there’s nothing back there anyway.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin