We’ve all hurt people. You may have hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally, through your words or actions. It might be a small offense that is easy to overlook (Proverbs 19:11), or something so big that you think it could never be overcome (Proverbs 18:19).
Although you can’t go back in time and change what you’ve done, you can seek to reconcile with the person you’ve hurt. Jesus places a high priority on this; when we realize someone has something against us, we are to go quickly to try to reconcile with them (Matthew 5:23-24). We should repent and ask them for forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4).
But how do you approach someone you’ve wronged and ask them to forgive you for that wrong?
Know What You Are Asking For
Before asking someone for forgiveness, it helps to understand what forgiveness is (and what it isn’t). You’re not asking them to pretend that nothing happened or to not feel hurt by what you’ve done. Instead, you are asking if they will agree not to hold that unpayable debt against you.
It can also be useful to remember why forgiveness is important. You may feel like you’re asking the other person for a favor (and, indeed, they may see it the same way). But forgiveness is something that we, as believers, are called to do for each other. Forgiveness benefits both people; by asking for forgiveness, you give the other person a chance to let go of the grudge they are carrying and start the healing process.
Begin with Prayer
Before you even approach the other person to ask their forgiveness, begin with prayer.
Confess your sin to God (1 John 1:9). Whatever you said or did that hurt the other person, it can probably be traced to a sin of pride, hate, lust, apathy, etc. You should acknowledge that sin and ask God’s forgiveness for it (Psalm 32:1-5).
Pray and ask the Lord to reveal if there is anything else you need to apologize for (Psalm 139:23-24). Also, ask Him to give you empathy and compassion for the person you’ve hurt (Romans 12:15).
Approach with Humility
When you do go to someone to ask for their forgiveness, avoid having an attitude of “you should forgive me” or “you must forgive me.” The fact is, they don’t owe you anything; you owe them something, which is why there is a debt to forgive. It is true that believers are commanded to forgive (Colossians 3:13), but it is not your role to enforce that. Instead, you should approach them humbly (Luke 14:11) and with the intention of serving them, putting their interests ahead of your own (Philippians 2:3-4).
Explore the Pain
You want to ask forgiveness for the hurt you’ve caused. However, you don’t truly know how your actions have affected them. The debt you are asking them to forgive may be much bigger (or smaller) than you realize. There may even be other things you’ve done that have also caused them pain without you realizing it.
The Bible says it is unwise to give an answer before you understand the question (Proverbs 18:13). In a similar vein, it’s kind of unfair to ask a question (“Will you forgive me?”) without really knowing what it is you are asking them to do.
So, give them an opportunity to share. Ask them questions like, “When I did that, how did it make you feel?” Or, “If someone did that to me, I’d probably feel betrayed and angry. Is that how you felt when I did that to you?” Ask them if there is anything else that you also need to seek forgiveness for.
Showing that you understand how they feel and fully appreciate the seriousness of what you have done makes it easier for the other person to grant forgiveness. You want to own your whole part and acknowledge how you have hurt them; that way, you can ask forgiveness for all of the hurt.
Once you do genuinely repent and ask for forgiveness, realize that it is now out your hands. You have no control over whether they grant you forgiveness or not; that is their choice.
Understand that they may need time before responding. They might not be willing to forgive you right away. Also, even if they do forgive you, understand that the relationship might change. Forgiveness does not mean that you’ve regained their trust; that will take time and consistent faithfulness on your part. There may be consequences involved as part of your repentance, such as boundaries or restrictions to help prevent you from slipping into temptation and sinning against them again. Accept those consequences graciously.
Do Your Part
Asking for forgiveness is hard. It’s humbling. It leaves you vulnerable, because it means they might not forgive you.
But, it also sets you free. It means that you have done your part. Even if they don’t forgive you, you can be faithful in how you repent and ask for forgiveness.