The apology seems to be at an all-time high, and simultaneously, an all-time low. Thanks to public figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Kristen Stewart, and David Petraeus, Americans have a grid for fallen humans admitting their mistakes in front of others. This is good. What’s not so good is the cynical residue we are often left with after hearing their non-apology apology. Though their public mea culpas might make for great sound bites, they lack the components of a bona fide apology. Sadly, within the church, we rarely do much better.
More than a decade ago, my husband and I were leaders in a vibrant, growing church. The charismatic pastor called an impromptu leaders’ meeting on a Saturday night. After we all crowded into one family’s living room, he revealed that he needed to step down. For the next thirty minutes, he used certain words (romance, needs, passions), while discriminately avoiding others (adultery, betrayal, stupidity). In the process, he justified his behavior rather than admitting his misdeeds and asking for forgiveness. My husband and I walked out stunned, but also furious.
Though the word apology, as we know it, does not exist in the Old or New Testament, Scripture demonstrates that there is more to making an apology than what a press conference can provide.
Lessons one, two, and ten come from the following section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar and suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
One. The responsibility is on the offender to initiate the apology. No waiting for the offended to come knocking on your door.
Two. Self-reflection is key. “If you suddenly remember” implies that we should set aside time once a week (prior to going to the altar) to prayerfully explore whether or not we might have hurt someone. This should not lead to morose self-reflection or incessant apologizing. If you can’t get through the day without saying “I am sorry,” hold-off for twenty-four hours and try to determine if you actually did something wrong or if you struggle with fear or shame. Those of you who rarely utter those three words, push yourself.
Three. If you fail at #1, tell the truth when confronted. Paul, being Paul, doesn’t mince words to the Ephesian believers: “Stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4:25) All of the celebrities listed at the top lied at least once. We are tempted to avoid the truth because we fear the repercussions of honesty. And when we legitimately screw-up, there are all kinds of potential implications, most of which involve loss: loss of a marriage, loss of a job, loss of respect. Whether it takes one year or twenty, the truth always prevails and when it does, previous obfuscations or untruths make it much more difficult to make amends.
Four: Don’t procrastinate. In writing, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil,” (Ephesians 4:25-27) Paul reminds us that when we put-off dealing with conflict or relational issues, it only serves to widen the rifts. If at some point years down the road, you feel convicted about a consequential mistake, same rules apply. There’s no statute of limitations. If you remember, chances are the other person does too.
Five. Take full responsibility. The mistakes were made but not by me approach we so often hear reflects our natural tendency to deflect blame and preserve our self-image. Our boys were great at this when they were young; “I’m sorry for giving you a bloody nose but I didn’t mean it.” Remove if, but, and that was not my intention from your apology because they transfer responsibility to the offended. It doesn’t really matter if you didn’t mean it. You did it or said it. Own it and don’t blame anyone else for your missteps. (BTW—taking responsibility means more than simply using that word in your “statement.” See #10 for clarification.)
Six. Words matters, so be specific. “I’m sorry that I was harsh last night at dinner. I know that made it difficult for you and the kids. Please forgive me.” Exactly. The more specificity, the easier it will be for the offended to forgive you.
Seven. Tone also matters. Remember how Eunice (Carol Burnett) squealed Sorry! while playing the eponymous board game with mama and Ed? Avoid using that tone at all cost. It will have the opposite effect that you want.
Eight. A face to face apology with eye contact works best. Yes, it’s humiliating but that’s part of the point. If you are logistically unable to pull this off, write a letter.
Nine. Don’t try to control the other’s response; allow them to express their hurt, anger, or disappointment. When we detach from others, it’s much easier to wound and then disregard them. Experiencing their reaction helps us to feel remorse and might prevent us from making the same mistake tomorrow.
Ten. Work for reconciliation through restitution. The Peacemakers Ministry believes, “Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, Christians can be reconciled to one another.” After we have wounded someone, in order for us to be truly reconciled, we must endeavor to change those behaviors and attitudes which hurt them in the first place. Ask questions such as, “Is there anything I can do to make things right between us?” Or, “How could I help you to trust me again?” Additionally, if it’s appropriate to compensate them for a physical loss, offer to do so.
An authentic, pro-active apology has the power to diffuse anger, re-establish dialogue, and bring tremendous healing. As followers of Christ, let us set the standard for what it means to apologize well.