Chapter 2

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

People in Alcoholics Anonymous have a saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We can be our own worst enemy if we keep repeating mistakes of the past.

When it comes to apologies and forgiveness, there is a danger of walking well-worn paths into some common pitfalls. For xample, we can misunderstand what constitutes genuine repentance and forgiveness. This results in conflicts being smoothed over but not really resolved. Or in a desire to “forgive and forget,” we can fail to lovingly follow through with necessary accountability. This can result in the offenses being repeated over and over—and the pain and disappointment being repeated with them.

If we are to break the patterns of past mistakes, we need to be more thoughtful about where we have been and where we are going.

If we are to break the patterns of past mistakes, we need to be more thoughtful about where we have been and where we are going.


The following actual cases will illustrate not only the scope of the problem but the complexity that needs to be weighed and worked through in matters of serious spiritual failure. The names and circumstances have been changed to protect confidentiality.

The Workaholic. Hank grew up on a dairy farm with a stern and demanding father. His dad woke him up at 4:30 every morning to do milking before leaving for school. There was no time after school to play or visit with friends. The cows had to be milked again, then it was time for supper, homework, and back to bed.

Eventually he married a beautiful woman named Mary whom he met at Bible college. She was willing to support him in his desire to become a missionary. After being assigned to work for an international mission, Hank became known for his fortitude, persistence, and long hours. His personal drive kept him on whatever task was needed until it was accomplished.

Hank’s co-workers and mission administrators saw his drive as a highly valued strength. Invisible to him, though, was Mary’s growing loneliness and dissatisfaction. She would plead with him to limit his activities so he would have time for the family, but to no avail. Her increasing resentment and depression only made Hank want to stay away longer. She finally became emotionally broken to the point of suicidal despair. So they had to leave the field.

Back home, Mary was prescribed medication and counseling. Hank was confronted by the mission director for not paying more attention to Mary’s needs, so he quickly asked for Mary’s forgiveness and agreed that he would spend more time with her and the children.

It didn’t take long, however, before he was busy traveling around the country doing important work for the mission and becoming known as a successful recruiter at Christian colleges. Mary seemed to respond rapidly to medication and counseling. But with essential work to be done back on the field, Mary terminated her counseling early. She and Hank began preparing for their return to their country of service.

Not surprisingly, it was just a matter of months before Mary’s depression returned. One day, she took an overdose of medication and villagers found her alone and unconscious.

Hank’s case does not include the usual sins of sexual indiscretion, substance abuse, physical abuse, or other dramatic moral failures. Mary undoubtedly had issues of her own, but the problems this couple had are as deeply rooted in Hank’s spiritual and emotional state as they may be in hers. Until he is called to a more sincere form of repentance, he is bound to fail over and over again. Hank needs to thoroughly examine and change his workaholic lifestyle. He also needs to see the unresolved pain from his own personal history and make a deeper commitment to the relational needs of his family.

The Gambler. Bernie was considered by everyone to be the most visionary man on the church board. They knew that before coming to Christ he had struggled with a gambling addiction that had resulted in bankruptcy and the loss of his business. After his conversion, some Christian men had helped him to get started again in a small business, which was now flourishing.

Over time, Bernie was given access to church funds because he had business contacts who promised a high rate of return on the church’s money. What Bernie didn’t tell them is that he had agreed with a broker friend to invest the money in some high-risk stock-market trades. He convinced himself that this was going to be the Lord’s way of enabling the church to take on a new building project.

Bernie lost half the church’s money one day on a bad decision and an unexpected downturn of the market. To cover it up, he made an even worse decision the next day that completely destroyed all the monetary assets the church had.

The light approach to forgiveness often fails to resolve genuine conflict.

Bernie was tearfully apologetic when his actions were uncovered. The elders of the church were deeply troubled by the loss. But in a spirit of forgiveness, they made no change in his duties. Unfortunately, Bernie’s gambling addiction re-emerged and became worse as he engaged in online casino betting and covert visits to the race track. He eventually lost his business, his home, and almost his marriage.

The Abuser. Sara had a voice that was clear and sincere. When she sang, it was as if angels were hovering over the sanctuary. But no one knew that her marriage was unraveling and her children (ages 8, 5, and 2) were afraid of her. Her temper tantrums would rage on into the night over such small matters as her 8-year-old son playing video games after homework rather than practicing the piano. When a teacher reported bruises on the boy’s arm to Protective Services, Sara claimed they were from playful roughhousing on the floor. Besides, what right did these nonbelievers have to question her duties as a Christian mother? The pastor didn’t believe that Sara would ever abuse her children, so he backed her up. Two weeks later, the police filed charges when the 2-year-old was brought to the hospital unconscious. Little Tory never woke up from the violent shaking he had received after soiling his pants.

In each of these three case studies, the stakes are high. For their own sakes, and for the well-being of those who depended on them, Hank, Bernie, and Sara needed more than a slap on the wrist. They also needed more than loving words or bitter condemnation. With an eye on the dangers of superficial apologies and forgiveness, we’ll take a look now at the kind of restoration process that gives such fallen brothers and sisters the best opportunity for real change.


The process of restoration referred to in this booklet is rooted in the scriptural command found in Galatians 6:1.

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

We will be defining restoration in the following pages as “a process whereby mature followers of Christ help those who have betrayed the trust of their immediate family, church, or local community to understand and acknowledge their wrongs and the damage they have done to themselves and to others, resulting in such an inner change that they will be reconciled to God and to those they have harmed.”

If those who are offered such help refuse to cooperate with this process, the church may need to formally disassociate from them until they show an honest change of heart (1 Cor. 5:11). Only when the wrongdoer agrees to participate can the process of loving restoration begin.

A Process Of Support And Accountability Needs To Begin. Regardless of whether fallen persons are ever again considered for leadership or significant responsibility, they remain members of Christ’s family and need to be given the same consideration we would want for ourselves in a similar situation. They need to be loved and respected through a difficult period of correction, growth, and change. As they once led others, they now must be led in the spirit and principles of Christ through an appropriate and carefully addressed process of accountability and restoration. Holding them responsible for their actions and for the harm they have done to others is what they need. Taking their wrongs seriously will also help those who have been hurt by their actions. If the process of correction and restoration is going to be effective, the wrongs done need to be faced honestly by both the offending person and those affected.

The process of restoration deserves more than a quick fix.

Mature People Need To Be Enlisted. Those who are called on to help with correction and restoration must be people who can do so lovingly, patiently, and firmly. They must know how to listen with care and discernment to both victims and offenders. They need to be people who want to help rather than condemn. In their own lives, they need to have been humbled by their own weakness and failings. Without such maturity, those who try to intervene and restore can end up doing more harm than good.

To bring a helpful attitude to the process, they must be people who have shown a pattern of relying on the Spirit of God to do through them what they cannot do for themselves. They must be people who have learned to trust God for daily guidance, empowerment, and the motivation to truly love others. Only if they understand what it means to be broken and humbled before God and others will they be able to help a fallen brother or sister through the painful process of meaningful confession, forgiveness, and restoration.

With the need for restoration in view, and the awareness that the process needs careful thought and follow-through, let’s take a closer look.