“I’m sorry for my part in this whole thing,” he said. It was already a good two hours into the group dialogue, and no one was expecting him to offer an apology. But once it was out there, everything shifted. The mood lightened up, others shared more openly and the conversation moved freely toward future considerations.
It wasn’t the first time I had facilitated such a meeting in a church setting. On previous occasions I have witnessed this same kind of release point. But each time it happens, I’m struck anew by the profound power of a genuine apology. Whenever someone can own his or her responsibility for hurting others or for contributing to the rise of tensions, it seems to do good for all involved.
So basic to human life is the spoken apology that it holds status as one of the three most important things we remind little children to say. “Say, Thank you.” “Say, Please.” “Say you’re sorry.” We want our children to internalize these courtesies on their own by the time they’re 10. My mother had to coach me until I was in high school to say thank you.
Significantly, these essentials all have to do with relationships. We socialize children into gratitude, respect and ownership because we are relational beings. And this socialization is good because it engages the deepest ways we approach life and even God. Think of the Psalms. One can almost boil them down to thanking God, asking God for help and admitting to God our limits and failures.
In light of how apologies touch the deeper parts of our lives with others and prompt our inner growth, I have found it stimulating to think about how apologies work. But giving an apology can be complicated. When do you give one? And how do you give one, knowing that some apologies can mess things up even more?
These questions are common, largely because the terrain of apology and forgiveness is often filled with gray tones. When two sides in a conflict feel as though the other side has slighted their integrity, the complexities increase. Unresolved conflicts, for many, have paralyzed them from being able to say sorry on any occasion. The power of apology gives us more confidence about applying it in our daily lives and in our churches.
One would think the words “apology” or “sorry” are in the Bible, but they aren’t. We do read about forgiveness, and I’ll return to that. The Greek word “apologia,” however, is in the New Testament, meaning “to make a defense for yourself” (as Paul did in his final speeches in Acts). How ironic that centuries later (around the 18th century), the concept of apology would apply to making yourself more vulnerable, through confession, rather than defending yourself!
Word meanings and usages change over time. Some people say sorry for countless situations in a given day: “I’m sorry, could you repeat that.” “Oops, sorry.” I will limit the use to occasions when we have truly done something to impact another person, causing us to think about saying “I’m sorry” before we do so.
Causing us to “think”—there’s a defining feature. It is apologies we most resist giving that are the most profound. I hate giving apologies. My Adam’s apple extends, and for that reason we speak of “swallowing our pride.” One time I vented my frustrations with a sharp tongue onto a librarian who informed me of additional fees regarding a book my daughter had lost. Nothing pushes my buttons more than paying fines or fees that seem unfair.
Ten minutes later, at a grocery store, my thinking kicked in. The only honorable thing to do was to go back and apologize. When she saw me in line again, she surely thought, Oh no. Not him. She braced herself when I approached. “I came back to apologize to you. You didn’t deserve the negative stuff I dished out, and I’m really sorry for affecting you.” At first she looked at me with disbelief. Then she extended her hand toward me. “Thank you,” she said slowly and sincerely. “No one has ever done that before.”
It was a great reconciling moment. It released both of us from the tension I had caused. But greater was the fact that a relationship grew where there would otherwise have been no relationship—or rather, a negative relationship. In future visits to the library, I would have avoided her at all costs; should our eyes have met under that scenario, old tensions would have gripped us both. Our feelings would have been ruled by the unnamed harm of the past. But as it happened, the apology opened up a freer future. In subsequent correspondence she wrote, “True conflict resolution strengthens a relationship and often forges friendships, as it did with us.”
In my restorative justice work with victims and offenders, I’ve had the chance not only to hear apologies but to read them. After reviewing over 100 letters, I saw categories of phrases that corresponded with past, present and future:
1. statements of admission (for wrongdoing in the past);
2. statements of expression (of regret and empathy in the present);
3. statements of intention (for change and reconciliation in the future).
For example, letters typically begin with “I did such and such; I didn’t think …” (past tense), then, “I am sorry; I feel bad that …” (present tense) and, finally, “I will not repeat …; I hope we can …” (future tense). This framing helped me realize that a good apology helps both givers and receivers to successfully pivot from the past to the future.
One time I facilitated a case with a teenager who vandalized some outdoor church property. After preparation meetings, I told the victim party that the boy might not be very apologetic but was willing to meet. During his prep meeting, he even said he didn’t want to meet. The joint dialogue had its limits, but in the end there was a mutual reparation plan. Before we left, one church member asked the boy if the meeting was helpful to him. He said, “I don’t feel so separate now.”
This line reminds me that sincere apologies create unities where there were disunities. Certainly they unify people relationally, as the library story demonstrates. But they also unify something inside people. If I make a hurtful remark to my wife, the disconnection between us is paralleled by a disconnection between the part of me that mindlessly acts and the part of me that mindfully affirms higher standards. In that gap we experience a type of shame Paul calls “godly sorrow,” a motivator for “repentance … (which) leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). There is also a crippling type of shame that holds us captive to the past, and Paul says it “brings death.”
An apology, therefore, brings a sense of relief because it restores that inner unity. I think of apologies as a miniature death. Our lower-self pride dies, and our higher-self humility, which chose a sacrificial death for the sake of the other, brings resurrection life for receiver and giver. The result: unity, reconciliation, atonement (literally, being at-one with another).
Of all people, church folk should understand this death-unto-life pattern that is so foundational to Christianity. And yet churches are all too often places where apologies run low and mistrust runs high. If, however, people can “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances (they) have with one another” (Colossians 3:13), then apologies can run freely. Reading the Epistles through the lens of church relationships helps us see how we work out our salvation in the context of “one another-ing” each other. Thus we participate in the Christ-pattern by practicing the Christ-virtues (humility, compassion, forgiveness). And practice makes perfect.
Who takes the first step? No easy answer there, except to say that love initiates a way. Certainly, apologies and forgiveness are at their best when they are exchanged at the same time. But they should never be tied together with strings. They operate on their own independent terms because in a gray-tone world, different people progress at different paces. Forgiveness is a journey for the one wronged; apology is a journey for the one who wronged. While both are defined by a strained relationship, they are not dependent on what the other person does or doesn’t do.
In a word, these powerful gifts are invitational. I once heard a police officer tell a citizen that he was sorry for how he handled a traffic citation. He didn’t have to apologize in a setting of confidential mediation. But he invitationally offered it. It was moving, for this sort of thing is rare in law enforcement cultures. But it was empowering for both the officer and the citizen. The result: a profound strengthening of community relations.
Do you wish to promote new life? Are you willing to model Jesus’ vulnerability through honesty about your contribution to existing tensions or strife? According to the New Testament, the road goes through the miniature Jerusalems of our lives, those places of power that resist change and growth. Thankfully, the very place where our pride dies is the place where new life rises up with power to ensure a new and better future for everyone.
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