Let A Sleeping Dog Lie?
Restitution: the restoration of something stolen to its proper owner.
Repentance: a change of intention – i.e. turning to the Lord, to walk in his ways.
Confession: an acknowledgement or an agreement that something is true, either good or bad.
Reparation: the making of amends for a wrong one has done.
Make amends: to correct a mistake that one has made, or a bad situation that one has caused.
The concept of making amends for one’s past sins is one that many Christians have grappled with in various forms. As with most topics, one can find both good advice and bad advice being given by (probably) well-intentioned people. Restitution in the Old Testament involved someone restoring property to another that was stolen, or that was lost because of someone’s negligence. Exodus 22:1-15 states:
“If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If the theft be certainly found in his hand alive, whether it be ox, or ass, or sheep; he shall restore double. If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man's field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution. If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution. If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man's house; if the thief be found, let him pay double. If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges, to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour's goods. For all manner of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, which another challengeth to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour. If a man deliver unto his neighbour an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it: Then shall an oath of the LORD be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour's goods; and the owner of it shall accept thereof, and he shall not make it good. And if it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner thereof. If it be torn in pieces, then let him bring it for witness, and he shall not make good that which was torn. And if a man borrow ought of his neighbour, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof being not with it, he shall surely make it good. But if the owner thereof be with it, he shall not make it good: if it be an hired thing, it came for his hire.”
Without expounding on every detail of this passage, it is clear that the protection of property rights is something that comes from the mind of God. If someone steals something from another person, or causes him to lose it, he is to make restitution for his theft, or his negligence. This was part of the civil law that God established for the Israelite nation. I think it is important that when we read the scriptures, and we begin to tell people today what they should do and what they should not do in any area of life, that we learn to distinguish between God’s never changing moral laws, his civil laws for the nation of Israel, and the ceremonial laws for Israel’s religious practices. God’s moral law is ever the same. It is and always has been a sin to steal, to murder, to commit adultery, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to commit fornication, to bear false witness against your neighbor, to be drunk, to worship a false god, etc. We are to love God with all of the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. As the Bible tells us, the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) However, there is no indication in the scriptures that Christians are to maintain the civil laws of national Israel in the Church, for the Church is not a coercive political kingdom, it is a body of people called out of the nations, that submits to the Lordship of Christ and seeks first the Kingdom of God. God’s morals are to be maintained and safeguarded in the churches, and those who sin can be excommunicated from a local church, with the hopes of influencing them to repent, but the Church does not stone those who sin and refuse to repent. The Lord’s purposes through his Church are not the same as the purposes he had through the nation of Israel. The same goes for the ceremonial laws of Judaism. Sacrificing animals, observing certain holidays and feasts, being circumcised – these are not binding upon the Church.
When it comes to the idea of restitution, the New Testament (NT) does not specifically address this subject, though the conversion of Zacchaeus is sometimes hailed as a NT example of the “requirement” of restitution. The promise of restitution that followed the conversion of Zacchaeus was no doubt influenced by Jewish custom, and it certainly seems like the appropriate thing to do in that situation. Be that as it may, when some people speak of restitution nowadays, they take the OT mandate of returning what was taken or lost, and they seek to apply it to every area of life and make it a legalistic requirement.
Zacchaeus was converted and wanted to restore to others what he had unjustly taken from them. There was no legalistic requirement involved, no certain amount that had to be paid, and he could not even remember the details of all of his actions (…”and if I have taken”…emphasis mine). Zacchaeus was willing to give half of his goods to the poor and to make an about face in his dealings with others. When a person has a change of heart toward God it will change his heart toward people too. When a person’s heart is right, he will want to make amends for wrongs he has done.
Paul, when writing to the Ephesian Christians, said: ““Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” There is no mention of the requirement of restitution, here or anywhere else in the NT. Does this mean that we can keep what we have stolen and still be right with God and our neighbor as long as we do not steal anymore? If I stole $500 from someone, as long as I am in possession of the $500, I am hanging onto something that is not mine, and the sin continues, even if I become sorry that I stole it. I should return the money, if that is possible. That seems cut and dry. The NT does not give a legalistic requirement, such as restoring the money with interest, but since repentance means a change in intention, I do not think I can say I have repented if I keep the money.
As I said before, when you read about what people have to say about this topic, it seems that some of them seek to apply the concept of restitution to every area of life, making it a legalistic requirement that is necessary for forgiveness. It is good when we are sorry for wrongs we have done, and when we want to make amends, but this is not always possible or wise. God says when we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Rather than using the term restitution, which I believe should be limited to the biblical description of restoring property to someone, when it comes to the feeling that rises up in a repentant person that he should try to “fix” the wrongs he has done, I will simply refer to it as the desire to make amends. To make amends is to correct a mistake that one has made, or a bad situation that one has caused. Sometimes it is appropriate to confess a sin to someone and to make amends, and again, sometimes it is not possible. Even in some instances where it may be possible, to revisit the matter can be unwise. How do we know when we should or should not try to make amends for past wrongs? Many Christians have carried heavy burdens when it comes to this issue. Where does this come from? From God? From their own conscience? Might an evil spirit lead us to revisit something that is better left alone?
Contrary to the advice that some people give, I believe that any sin committed against one’s husband or wife, no matter how long ago it was, should be confessed. I read an article that gave a response to a person who wrote that he/she committed adultery many years ago, yet never confessed it to the spouse, that their marriage was great, but feelings of guilt had the person wondering what should be done. The advice giver said that the person should not confess, since it was so long ago, and it would only cause trouble now for their marriage. I could not disagree with this more. The marriage relationship is the most sacred relationship on earth, and it mirrors the individual’s relationship with the Lord more than any relationship on earth. When there is sin between the husband and wife, it can affect their relationship with the Lord and jeopardize their family. The husband and wife should make sure there is no sin between them, “that [their] prayers be not hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7) They should be open and honest, as well as loving and forgiving toward one another. I do think there are situations where confession and an attempt to make amends can do more harm than good, but matters involving a husband and a wife are not included in those in my opinion.
The meaning of the phrase "let a sleeping dog lie" is “to leave a situation as it is and not to interfere, when doing so could make a problem or cause trouble.” (thewordcounter.com) So how do we know if confession of sin to someone and trying to make amends for a wrong done is the right thing to do, or if it will cause more harm than good? I don’t think we can know with certainty, so seeking God and seeking godly counsel would be important. Sometimes confession and making amends seems simple, and at other times it does not.
A topic that I think needs to be included in this discussion is the battlefield of the mind. The powers of darkness seek to wreak havoc on the minds of Christians, and it is also known that the mind plays tricks on people during and after stressful situations, or after a length of time when it comes to incidents in general. Our minds can create false memories and our memories can be distorted. What we think is a clear memory may be a distortion of what actually happened. This is prevalent among survivors of violence and individuals working in the field of public service, such as police and correctional officers, fire fighters, medical personnel, and those in the military. The people in these fields can see or do things that go against their normal moral beliefs, and it can cause what some experts call “moral injuries.” For a couple of articles that explain this concept, click here and here. What should these individuals do in the aftermath of these hostile and stress filled situations? While it is true that we should make amends when we do our neighbor wrong, if it is possible, the conscience can cause people to feel depressed and ashamed if in the line of duty they commit an act that they would not normally do, perhaps by having a use of force, killing a combatant, or writing a report in a way that may not be totally accurate, but protects themselves or their comrades, or gets a dangerous criminal off of the streets. A person that experiences an act of violence may also feel shame if he/she feels that he/she did something that led to the violent incident or did not do more to resist the violence. Might the powers of darkness bear down on the minds of these individuals making them think they are unforgivable unless they “do something” to make up for their previous actions? I think it is possible. In these scenarios, I think a case can be made that revisiting them can cause more harm than good for the individual(s) involved.
I think it is important for us to have professionals in the Church that are able to relate to these types of situations and able to provide help and hope for those with a burdened conscience. While making amends has its place, not every “wrong” needs to be revisited, and at times an argument can be made that what may be considered “wrong” may have been the right thing to do at the time. Lying is wrong, yet Rahab and the Egyptian midwives were blessed for their falsehoods because they were stopping violent and dangerous people from doing harm to others. Moses killed an Egyptian and Paul stated that in doing so he “defended and avenged” his Hebrew kinsman. Do we see where amends needed to be made for these actions? The clear answer is no.
If we have slandered an innocent man to his hurt, we should make it right. If we have defrauded our neighbor, we should make it right with him. If we have caused unjust harm to an individual, if it is possible for us to repair the matter, we should do so. Situations that arise between family members and Christian brethren should be remedied so we can restore and maintain these relationships. We should not keep material items that we have stolen. How these matters are handled may be different from one situation to the next, but in my opinion, they need to be addressed. But some situations do not seem so clear, such as actions in war, in law enforcement, and some others we can mention. Just trying to relieve ourselves of a burdened conscience can lead us to create more problems.
I was thinking about this one day as I was preparing to leave home for work. My wife toasted an English muffin for me and put peanut butter on one side and jelly on the other. As I was eating my breakfast, a small amount of jelly fell to my plate. I was deep in thought, and I used the muffin to wipe the jelly, but instead of cleaning it up, more fell on the plate and I made a bigger mess. Coincidence? Whisper of the Holy Spirit? Whatever it was, it was an instructive moment.
I am not saying we should never make amends, but I am saying that it is not always wise, because for one thing, we may not have been as wrong as we feel like we may have been, and for another, even if we were wrong, we could go back and make things worse for ourselves and others. It requires wisdom, and I will reiterate that trusted counsel is very important. Of course, we should humble ourselves and seek to restore broken or strained relationships.
The person who follows Christ will hate his past sins and will wish he could undo them. In some instances, he should make amends, if possible. In others, he should “let a sleeping dog lie” and leave it undisturbed. I cannot tell you what to do in any given situation, of course. It is also true that evil spirits can accuse you and influence your mind with negative thoughts. We should also know that our minds are extremely complex and can be very deceptive.
One thing is for sure. We have a merciful God, and he will forgive you of your sins when you confess and forsake them. He can see your heart and knows that you would change any wrongs done if you could. Now, in the words of our Lord - "Go, and sin no more."