The Keys to a True Apology

apology

Most of us have learned – somewhere along life’s path – that a true apology always includes a few things:

  1. An expression of remorse (“I am sorry”)
  2. An acknowledgement of the wrong or offense  (Verbalizing how the offender wronged the offended utilizing empathy to acknowledge and validate the offended’s feelings)
  3. An acknowledgement of responsibility (“It was my fault”, or “I was wrong”)
  4. An expressed plan to change (I will not do this again, and this is how I will be held accountable)
  5. An offer of restitution (“I will make it up to you by…”)
  6. A request for forgiveness

Few of us follow the mental checklist when we are in the heart of a disagreement or are trying to make peace, but after learning how to restore a relationship in this healthy manner we are keenly aware when we receive (or give) a false apology.  It is like the stubborn toddler that the mother forces to “say sorry” when he steals a toy or hits his sister.  As we grow older, however, our false apologies become a bit more suave.  We “say sorry”, but assign the guilt to the offended:  “I’m sorry if I hurt you somehow…” and make excuses, “It was not my intention to offend you”.  While it may be true that it was not our intention to hurt or offend someone, true sorrow recognizes the pain of the other party and seeks to make it better, not justify himself.

It is possible for the offended party to hear true remorse and in spite of being validated in their feelings, offered restitution and asked for forgiveness to choose not to forgive.  And once bitterness has established a deep root it only becomes more difficult.  This is one reason we must be able to recognize broken relationships and make every effort to restore them quickly.  Bitterness and unforgiveness are also offenses, and thus it typically happens that when a confrontation or problem occurs, both parties need to practice the steps of an apology in order for the relationship to be restored.

Mature adults, and well socialized children have learned the interpersonal skill of a true apology.  Surprisingly, however, the skill is not as widely grasped as one would hope.  Many people skirt through life, floating from relationship to relationship and leaving behind any and all who have hurt them.  Some people and families have mastered the art of “moving on” – simply pretending the problem never occurred and “letting it go”.  (Yes, it is also a healthy skill to learn to forgive when an offense was clearly unintentional, or the value of the relationship is greater than the weight of the offense.)  Some people just verbalize “I’m sorry” without validating the other person’s hurt or offering restitution or a plan to change – and thus remain in a cycle of hurting one another.

This confession process, however, is also the pivotal point on which salvation hangs.  It is what Christians call “repentance”.  Scripture teaches us that there are two kinds of sorrow:  one that is a guilt rooted in pride – sorrow for having been caught in sin or sorrow for one’s reputation being tainted, and one that is rooted in humility – sorrow for having sinned against God and for being the cause of Jesus’ suffering.

“For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while—I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.”

– 2 Cor 7.8-10

Godly sorrow recognizes one’s wicked heart and is broken over it.  Worldly sorrow recognizes only the punishment or the ramifications to one’s reputation and just wants a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Godly sorrow leads to deep, profound change.  Worldly sorrow leads to escapism, self-justification, and tactics by which one can save face.  Godly sorrow leads to repentance, and repentance requires not only the apology, but the confession of guilt, the seeking to make restoration, and the earnest effort to change.  Simply saying “I’m sorry” or asking God to forgive us and accept us does not exemplify the heart that is broken in humility before God.

This is why Scripture teaches us that even though we are free in Christ, we cannot use our freedom as an opportunity to sin:

“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”

– 1 Peter 2.16

In short, we cannot make up our minds to sin and expect God to forgive us.  We cannot decide to go rob a bank and think, “I will just repent later”.  We cannot look at pornography, cheat on our spouse or file for divorce and assume God’s forgiveness while we are continuing in that sin process.  True repentance recognizes personal guilt, seeks to make right what is wrong and takes responsibility to change.  God can forgive the bank robber or adulterer, but part of his repentance process will be returning the money or serving the jail time, and making amends to his spouse.

We also cannot come to God and make a blanket confession, “I am a sinner, please forgive me”, and expect that sinner’s prayer to cover our eternity.  From the moment we begin the repentance process, the Holy Spirit will take up residence in our lives and convict us of sin continually and consistently.  And this is a good thing!  Scripture also teaches us that it is the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance.  It would be unkind of Him to allow us to remain in our sins and headed to Hell!

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

– Rom 2.4

Thus we should check ourselves – is the Holy Spirit convicting us?  Have you walked through the steps of confession and repentance with God recently?  Have you walked through the steps of confession and restoration with a friend lately?  It is possible to go long periods of time without hurting or being hurt by a friend, but it is uncommon when we are living life in community the way God has commanded us.  That is just the nature of relationships.  It is not possible, however, with God.  Because none of us will reach full Spiritual maturity and perfection until we are free of our physical bodies.  God knows our every thought and feeling, and while we may not act out on those thoughts or feelings, He knows the sins within.

So let’s get real about our confession and interactions with God.  Even though we preach tolerance in our culture, God does not tolerate our sin.  He hates sin.  And He will not accept us if we just give him a fake “sorry” and continue acting however we want to act.  He must have authority over our actions and decisions, He must be the Lord of our lives and continually guiding us through repentance in order for us to be saved.  So let’s recognize our guilt, confess it, seek to make it right and seek to change.  Let’s also practice these interpersonal skills with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and with the outside world.  People know a true apology when they hear one, and this is just one more brick we can lay in the house of love we are building – by which we seek to be known.  And whenever someone confesses a wrong to us, let us be quick to forgive – for Jesus has always forgiven us of infinitely more than we could ever be asked to forgive.  And not only that, but He promises that God will not forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive others:

“But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

– Matt 6.15

So let us be quick to love, quick to apologize, quick to listen and quick to confess.  Let us not grieve the Holy Spirit but follow His prompting when He convicts us, and let us also be quick to apologize if a friend or family member confronts us in a sin or grievance.  God desires that change, that we love well, and that we be known by our love.

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