“I’m sorry.” We hear that so often. Do we even stop to think: “What does it mean?” or “Where did that phrase come from?” Even if you have not spent any length of time dealing with those questions, at the very least you have formed an opinion about what a good apology should look like. All too often do you hear a celebrity or politician on camera apologizing for something they did wrong (or at least got caught doing). But, rarely do we believe them. Why is that? What makes an apology a sincere one? How should we respond to an insincere one? How can we avoid giving an insincere apology?
To answer that question, we must first look to the Bible. Our only problem is: the world ‘apology’ cannot be found anywhere in the English Bible.
The word “apology” finds its origins in New Testament Greek. But, it meant something different back then than it does today. Back then it meant “to give a defense of”, with a notable use of the word found in 1 Peter 3:15 (where it speaks of making a defense of our faith). Today, “apology” means “to make frank expression of wrongdoing”. Now, if we take that definition of the word and ask ourselves, “Is that found anywhere in the Bible?” then the answer is, “Yes.”
There are lots of reasons why people apology, but only two of them are good reasons (keeping the peace and seeking reconciliation because of wrongdoing). Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said a lot on making restoration with one another:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” Matthew 5:21-26
Several things I wanted to point out about this scripture: 1) An insult is taken just as seriously as a physical act like murder. 2) You are to make restitution before you bring any offering of worship to the Lord. 3) Failing to make restitution can have dire consequences here on Earth, not just in eternity.
I think the main point of this passage here is that God wants us to seek reconciliation with a person we have wronged.
Again, in James 5:16, seeking reconciliation is encouraged: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” And in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching to seek reconciliation within the church before things get out of hand and the courts are dragged into the picture. Apologizing is commanded in scripture, that much we know for sure. And in our day and age when apologies are rarely given and when they are they are rarely trusted, Christians should be shining examples. When people want to know what a sincere apology looks like, a Christian should be the first thing that comes to mind.
So, what prevents us so often from being that shining example? I believe it boils down to two obstacles: 1) Wrong assumptions about apologies 2) Pride.
As I said before, people apologize all the time but many times their apology is tainted with sin. How can we know that an apology is insincere? Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when you go to make an apology:
1. Are you apologizing to look good in front of others? A public apology is sometimes necessary and right, but it can be impersonal. It is best to apologize first in private with the person you offended then, if necessary, apologize in public.
2. Are you apologizing for “political” reasons? Maybe you said something offensive at work and you decide that, to get back on the boss’s good side, you’ll apologize to him. Apologizing for any reason other than to keep the peace or admit to wrongdoing is a sin. And you can substitute the word “boss” with the words “wife, parent, teacher, pastor, or friend” and it still applies.
3. Are you apologizing to get the last word in an argument? This one is my favorite. And by favorite I mean, the one I see the most often and therefore hate the most. I used to do this a lot myself. But, once God showed me what a jerk move it is, I made it a personal goal to rid myself of such a terrible habit. The words “I’m sorry” should never be followed by “but,”. It should just be “I’m sorry.” Period. If you truly said something or did something wrong, then your goal should be to apologize for that wrongdoing and that’s it. You do not get a free pass to criticize them or justify your actions. Save that for another conversation. Besides, once you add a single word to an apology that sounds like criticism or justification you have just then nullified your apology altogether.
4. Are you apologizing because you are told to apologize? Martin Luther once said, “If you are going to sin, do it boldly.” So, if someone tells you you have to apologize to keep your job, to play at recess, to stay first string on the football team, etc and you have no intention of giving a sincere apology, then stick to your guns and don’t apologize. Keep that prideful stance as captain of your own ship. And if your ship sinks because you are too stubborn to give a sincere apology, then you should go down with your ship.
5. Are you apologizing because you expect an apology in return? It doesn’t matter if the other person did something wrong as well. That is a separate issue. If they refuse to apologize it is on them and God will deal with them. Your goal is simply to admit wrongdoing in hopes to gain reconciliation. Most often that other person will be humbled by your apology is reciprocate.
Unfortunately, there have been times when I have given a sincere apology, but because of our culture’s disdain for apologies in general or because I’ve given insincere apologies in the past, those who are the recipients of that apology may take it the wrong way. If this has happened to you, here are a few tips that I have learned from others over the years:
- Always apologize as soon as the offended person has cooled down enough to listen. God’s word teaches us that it is foolish to go to bed angry (Ephesians 4:26). If you are the cause of that person being angry, you can solve that problem by apologizing right away.
- Be specific in your apology. A general apology goes like this, “I’m sorry for any action or word that has offended you.” Nobody buys that kind of apology. Name the action and the words that caused offense and apologize for those alone.
- Apologize in private. This saves embarrassment and no one can accuse you of seeking attention in your apology.
- Apologize for the little things. Just the other day I responded to someone with a bad attitude and even though it was brushed off easily by that person and by those who heard the conversation, I apologized anyway. An offense is an offense no matter how big or small. Besides, if you are used to apologizing for small offenses, you’ll probably never have to apologize for a big offense simply because you will be too sensitive toward others to cause a big offense.
- One apology is enough. Apologizing multiple times comes across as desperate and insecure. Plus, every time you bring up a past situation just to apologize again, you bring back the hurtful memories with it.
- Apologize in person. Apologies over the phone or through email simply do not convey emotion well enough. Furthermore, they can come across as impersonal.
- Put your money where your mouth is. If there is a misunderstanding over money, be prepared to offer monetary restitution when the situation calls for it.
- An explanation waters down an apology. Most offensive actions/words are inexusable anyway. Also, most explanations sound too much like justifications. It’s just better to apologize and admit you did wrong.
If it is rare to see some practical instruction on apologies, how rarer still is it to see instruction on how to receive an apology? So, when someone offers an apology, here are some guidelines to consider:
Assume it is a sincere apology. Even if you strongly suspect it is not, it certainly won’t help the matter to bring in another accusation of a false apology. Just accept it and move on. This of course does not mean they are fully restored to you in your eyes. Apologies are supposed to win back trust, but that trust can take time to be fully won. You do not need to treat this person exactly as you did before the offense.
Do not use it as an excuse to rub it in. Bringing up the argument in question or past arguments as a way exacting revenge is extremely damaging. A person offering an apology is already going out on a limb emotionally. It is awful to think someone would use it as an excuse to make them feel bad.
If you are unsure what they are apologizing for, make sure you ask them politely to make it clear. No two ways about it, clear communication is key to knowing how to proceed.
Do not apologize to them just to make them feel better. Why apologize to someone if you didn’t do any wrong? If it is so that you can lessen the humiliation the other person feels, then there are better ways of doing that. Reciprocating an apology with an apology just makes things awkward.
Make your words few. Forgive them and let them leave if they want to leave. If you must say something, focus on the positive aspects of your relationship with them. Give them encouragement that there is hope things will be good between you and them.
There are a few other surrounding issues concerning apologizing that need to be addressed:
Apologize to keep the peace. As I said earlier, one of the two good reasons to apologize is to keep the peace. My pastor has always said that it doesn’t matter if a person is overreacting to something you did and it doesn’t matter if you were 2% wrong and someone else is 98% wrong, if an apology is what keeps the peace, then apologize. I have already mentioned how an offense is an offense no matter how small. So, what would be keeping you from making a rather small apology to a small offense? Pride would be the only answer.
An apology is the beginning, not the end. This- THIS- is why so many people think apologies are cheap. If there is no promise to change and no attempt at making that change happen, know this: you will be right back where you were with that person, apologizing for the same thing again. Except, each time you commit that offense, any apology offered from that point on is not going to be taken seriously. You MUST change your behavior. There is no timetable on a return to full trust. It also helps if you work twice as hard at restoring the relationship.
I hope this helps. Most of this entry was born out of a need to clear my own head. I have been guilty of violating all of these guidelines at one point or another, so it is my hope that I can help others from making the same mistakes. I would like to leave you with a few, select quotes on the art of apologizing:
“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.” Aaron Lazare, M.D. (author of On Apology)
“A stiff apology is a second insult…. The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.” G.K. Chesterton
“True remorse is never just a regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive.” Mignon McLaughlin
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Kimberly Johnson
“Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.” Tryon Edwards
“When you realize you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow while it’s still warm.” Dan Heist