Confession and Repentance


Regrets Only

This story ranks in our family lore. My sister-in-law had spied her daughter picking at a hole in the kitchen screen door to the point that the hole grew—an act she’d specifically asked her kids not to do.

She huddled the children together in hopes of a confession. “Today’s a special day, guys—a free day.” For several minutes, she spoke of the substantial weight of not confessing what we do wrong and how liberating it feels to tell someone. “So today, you can tell me anything you’ve done wrong. I won’t get mad, and you won’t get in trouble.”

“We won’t get in trouble?” her son asked.

“Nope,” she said, smiling graciously.

Her son’s grin grew. He confessed all sorts of goodies that raised her eyebrows. The way she tells it, they must have tumbled out as if from an overturned gumball machine.

“You can’t get angry,” he reminded her, and continued with his litany.

“Have anything you’d like to confess?” my sister-in-law asked her daughter.

Her daughter shrugged mildly. “Nope.”

Permanent Truth


We set a climate in our relationships for regularly, humbly allowing God to expose what’s in our hearts. Confession is about:

• agreeing with God about our sin—that, like cancer, it must be found and cut out

• increasing our affection for God as we realize how much we’re forgiven and loved

• admitting we messed up, needing first vertical (Godward) forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, then horizontal (with others), in a circle of individuals reaching as far as the offense

• taking responsibility for both the heart attitude and the specific wrong action(s) that came from it

• intentionally changing future behavior

• accepting our consequences1

Her son continued his confessional. “Remember! You can’t get angry!” His sister remained passive, even bored. Got nothin’.

That’s the funny thing about confession. As with every other life skill—but perhaps most obviously here—we can’t force a sincere response. We can cultivate an atmosphere where those responses could appear, but like the difference between my attempts to garden in Illinois and in the deer-infested, mountain desert of Colorado, every soil is different. And as Paul asserts, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Only One creates that new life inside.

This is the mantra God whispers in my ear as I wrangle the problem child of the hour and as I write this book: Even solid parenting can only go so far.

But what does our due diligence in “planting” look like? How can we steer our kids’ hearts toward confession and repentance?

When the One Who Needs to Apologize Is Me

I struggle with parent rage. (Coincidentally, it’s an issue about one week out of the month. It’s my trusty, though inexcusable, sin pattern.)

Take the week we’d had with family for John’s milestone birthday—which was fabulous. It also meant that because of my party prep, by the time late Thursday night rolled around, I had not taken a break since 6:15 Monday morning. My helper-ad-nauseam personality type tends to totally ignore personal needs until they are unignorable, accelerating me from zero to 120 mph in 3.7 seconds.

Mom’s meltdown started with a child perpetually running his hands over a squeaky balloon while I drove (audio stuff can drive me bonkers). Another child was on her third night of prebedtime tears. And, of course, another decided to pick at his current rival sibling.

Let’s just say that if we had gotten a still shot of us around 9:27 p.m., my index finger would have been jabbing, my jaw steely, and my mouth stretched by drill-sergeant wrath. When the rage had mellowed and kids were burrowed into bed, I required a relational FEMA truck: first repenting of my behavior to God, then restoring my relationship with my kids.

I slept terribly. When 6:15 dawned, I woke each child with an apology and a firm hug, asking for forgiveness for the Mompocalypse. Later, before I shoveled them out the door for school, I led us in duly needed prayer and repentance (with tears of my own).

When my kids blow it—like we all did that night—I consistently seek to remind us: I completely love you, even when you totally mess up. And thankfully, that’s how God loves us. We need Jesus.

I wish I could take away my eruptive lack of self-control or the way I morphed instantly into military mode. I wish I could erase what I’d modeled for my kids: This is how a parent acts when they’re exhausted and have had it up to here. But what remained in my power were two words: I’m sorry.

Being a perfect parent is not the goal. Being a Jesus-loving, Jesus-needing parent—that’s the goal.

Creating a Confession Culture

Author Paul David Tripp cautions that when we blame our kids or the circumstances for our own junk, we “are essentially saying: ‘My problem isn’t a heart problem; my problem is a poverty of grace problem. If only God had given me _____, I wouldn’t have had to do what I did.’”2

Parents who are willing to openly own up to their wrongs—from the negligible to the capital—are more likely to possess deep humility. The more we get real about our sin, the more the gospel is real in our homes and the more likely our kids will be to adopt the same attitudes and behaviors.

We can cultivate an “I’m sorry/I forgive you” culture in our homes. Gently encourage your kids to take responsibility for what they do wrong—to declare war on their sin rather than blame-shifting. Talk openly about both strengths and weaknesses in ways that see everyone as being in process.

As a parent, model an eagerness to seek forgiveness from God, then others (your spouse is a consistent source!) for even the smallest infractions and a willingness to learn from anyone. What have you got to lose? (As a colleague of mine pointed out, “I was changing a diaper and got poop in my eyebrow last week. You can’t get much lower than that.”) We’re not trying to hide or fake anything or hold a position of superiority. So, if you pray together before bedtime, consider taking 30 seconds to a minute to silently confess your sins to God—and to each other, if needed.

Before church in the car, sometimes our family takes a minute to silently ask God for specific forgiveness and then (à la Matthew 5:24) ask forgiveness from each other before we go and worship. Rather than coming to God with our mental résumé of all the good things we’ve done this week, we can show our kids, This is how we get ourselves ready to receive God. We repent. It’s not unlike John the Baptist preparing the way—leveling the paths for Jesus through repentance (see Matthew 3:2-3).

Got Something in Your Eye?

One of my favorite moments from a Christmas break a while back found Corinne and me in my little sunroom, paintbrushes in hand. She was trying out her new easel. I was leaning against the love seat, watercoloring. A happy surprise was how much she shared about what was going on at school.

A memory that will stick with me even longer? Her observation about how she was contributing to the problem, not just how other girls were mishandling things.

Maybe it sounds weird to like that behavior. But don’t we want kids who voluntarily shuck sin’s blindfold? We want kids who, from constant practice, see the log in their own eye, who can step back from any situation and see how their sin contributes and destroys—so they can make it right. To help your kids see the logs in their eyes, keep in mind the circumstances that make our hearts most likely to be soft.

•The conversation should be away from the potential added shame of other people’s eyes.

•Allow a child to wait for a moment to respond so their brains aren’t in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

•Address them with calm tones: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

•Ask a child to put aside fears of their consequence and instead to focus on the bigger issue of their heart. Sometimes, if a child is truly responsive (as opposed to an excellent actor), a greater consequence isn’t as necessary.

•Ask questions designed to bring about ownership of the issue, rather than throwing out accusations or pitting ourselves against our kids.

•Praise what seems to be true repentance, rather than the appearance of it (check out 2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

•Restore the sense of connection by holding your child after a tough discipline moment, voicing your enjoyment of your relationship and your hope in your child—bringing the child metaphorically back “home” to you.

When a child isn’t “feelin’” the apology, give them time to calm down and step away from their anger or indignance. But then, if they still don’t want to reconcile, understand that performing a discipline still has value even when we don’t “feel” it. Remind your child to not let it go unresolved in their heart. Sometimes we’ve decided to withhold a privilege if a child hasn’t made relational stuff right.

Our kids can make a lot of horrible or idiotic decisions. And they will. But kids who are teachable and repentant? That we can work with.

Writing on the Wall: Practical Ideas

Help your kids understand the power of body language in confession.

You could verbalize “I’m sorry” in, like, 23 ways—probably 19 of them insincere. If kids can’t make a sincere apology, you might have them wait a few minutes to cool down, then try again. Tips:

•Apologize for both your general attitude toward the person and the specific wrong action.

•Look the other person in the eye.

•Uncross your arms, since crossed arms can communicate hostility or separation.

•Use a tone of voice that communicates that you understand the other person’s hurt. If the apologizer is doing this poorly, it can help to have them imagine being hurt in a similar way: “What if your sister had dumped juice on your sketchbook? How would you want her to apologize?”

I like the five As of confession from The Young Peacemaker3:

Admit what you did wrong. (I ask my kids to be specific about what they did wrong, and also to acknowledge the heart attitude they had.)

Apologize for how your choice affected the other person.

Accept the consequences.

Ask for forgiveness.

Alter your choice in the future.

(Note: I also take another A from the adult version: Avoid using if, but, or maybe in your apology.)

Memorize verses that talk about confession.

Start with Psalm 32:1-5; 51:10; 139:23-24; Matthew 5:23-24; 1 John 1:9. Celebrate by playing hide-and-seek—then talk about things that are definitely not good to hide.

Use situations in your home to illustrate the need for frequent confession.

The next time a kid finds something gross in your house—something fuzzy in the fridge, a baby with a dirty diaper, an unflushed toilet—casually ask whether it really needs to be dealt with. Is it that big of a deal? What would happen if we didn’t? Explain how frequent confession with God keeps our souls healthy too.

When you disinfect a skinned knee, talk about the similarity to confession.

If we don’t ask God to clean our hearts, that “infection” could grow—and hurt far worse. (Check out Psalm 32:2-8.)

Man up.

Check your kids’ Internet history, dig into sudden abandonments of friendships, and take seriously others’ intimations of your kids’ misbehavior. Sometimes when I’ve looked through my child’s computer history, my heart has knocked in my chest. What if I found terrible things? What if I found out what my child was really like? Our fears and failed expectations about who our kids are (or our own failure) can keep us from being relentless about the sin that hurts them, which festers like gangrene until much more loss is required.

Encourage use of the one percent rule.

Start your kids’ peace talks by encouraging them first to admit the “log in [their] own eye” (Matthew 7:4-5 ESV)—their personal contribution to the issue—and then to ask forgiveness. This approach cuts through a lot of the bickering. You may have heard some version of the one percent rule: Even if your contribution is only one percent of the problem, take one hundred percent responsibility for that one percent.

Get out a bunch of empty suitcases.

Read Hebrews 12:1 together. Ask kids to pick up as many suitcases as they can. While your kids hold the suitcases, ball up some scrap paper. “Let’s say that for every piece of paper you can catch with your hands, you get a small reward”—one less chore, extra screen time. How hard is it for your kids to receive the good things you’re trying to give them? Explain that it’s hard for us to “catch” the good gifts God has for us when we haven’t turned over the baggage of our sin. He might have better relationships for us, for example, but we’re not willing to let go of our destructive patterns. He might know that our lives will be good when we obey, but we’re not willing to repent from laziness or disrespect.4

Try a clever object lesson from KidsOfIntegrity.com.

Ask your kids to hide their dirty laundry somewhere in their room or under their clothes. What would happen if you never did laundry? Then read Isaiah 1:16-18 and Proverbs 28:13. What can we compare our dirty clothes to? Who “washes” the sin from our lives?

Ask heart questions.

One of my husband John’s great contributions to our parenting duo is his art of the shepherding conversation. Ask questions like these to help a child (or their parent) consider their own heart: How does that person feel right now? Was that loving or unloving? Was that wise or unwise? What did you actually want at that point? (See James 4:1-2.) What kind of heart did that come from? (Was it humble? Proud? Self-centered? Truthful?) What were you feeling right then? How could you have handled or said that differently?

Fresh Ink: Resources for Vibrant Faith

•For the younger kids, read picture books like Potato Pants by Laurie Keller, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, and Enemy Pie by Derek Munson.

•With older kids, search for videos of politicians or other leaders showing contrition and humility, admitting and apologizing for mistakes. Do the apologies always seem genuine? Or do some people just seem sorry they got caught? What makes for a heartfelt apology and repentance?

True Colors: Discussion Questions for Kids

•How can you tell when someone is really sorry?

•What’s the difference between someone being sorry and someone being sorry they got caught? How can you tell the difference? (Check out 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 for clues.)

Think Ink: Contemplative Questions for Parents

•Do you hesitate to apologize to your kids? Are you afraid it undermines your authority or dilutes your kids’ responsibility?

•How was (or wasn’t) confession modeled in your home of origin? Whose humility and repentance do you want to model?

•Think about the story of the woman who poured perfume over Jesus’s feet in the presence of some indignant Pharisees. Jesus observes, “Her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Consider whether this woman sinned more than the Pharisees. What effects of confession in her life do you want to absorb?

I’m sure my own sin has handed my kids plenty of fodder for their future therapists. But I hope they have just as many memories of me saying, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

I know, I know. Confession can sound like not much fun. Maybe a bit like sniveling. Or, depending on your background, maybe something like Bless me, Father, for I have sinned rolls around in your head.

But what if it sounded more like handcuffs falling off?

Prayer of the Dependent Parent

Lord, my entire family needs your forgiveness—myself included. Have mercy on us.

Help mercy and realness about our sin to mark my family. Let this realness feed our love for you and compassion for each other. Show me how to separate my kids’—and my own—worth from our performance. Let me show my kids the side of you that loved to hang with sinners.

Many days I’m overwhelmed with the failures of my family. Remind me over and over again that you live with those who are humble and contrite—not those enamored of their own perfection.


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