One thing fundamental to Christianity and hard as hell to do is owning up to what you’ve done wrong. We’re so bad at it. So lets do a quick rundown of the essentials of the most basic of apologies.
1. Never use the word “but.”
I recently watched Nice Guys and it reminded me of an important grammar lesson: don’t say “and stuff,” just say it. For example, don’t say “we rode bikes and stuff,” just say “we rode bikes.” It makes you look like you want to talk and make noises with your mouth, but have nothing substantive to say. In the same way, we are immediately tempted to say “I’m sorry, but…” Add on your string of excuses, explanations and information.
The problem is we REALLY want them to know the information in order to contextualize our infraction. I’ve been caught many times in the crux of the situation, getting caught in a tense situation where I immediately wanted to shift the blame, get a bit of distance between me and the guilt. One time I had to apologize to a youth for giving them false information about whether or not we would be swimming on a retreat. I wanted to say “Sorry, but nobody tells me anything,” “Sorry, but thats what I was told. What do you want from me?”
The temptation is so clear: “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but I was having a really bad day.” We want them to understand, we want them to sympathize, or at least understand how we could have possibly wronged those we love or care about. Here’s the thing: if its an apology, none of that matters. Either we accept responsibility or we don’t.
Imagine hearing an apology for someone being rude to you, which sounds better?
“I’m sorry I was rude to you, you don’t deserve to be treated that way.”
OR “I’m sorry I was rude to you, but I’m just really easily annoyed right now.”
2. Recognize You’ve Done Something Wrong
Most of us are over-trained to apologize. Like a dog who compulsively puts his paw up to “shake” anytime a human is near hoping for a treat, some of us say “sorry” so many times per minute that it appears to others we are apologizing for our basic existence. Because of this, we shouldn’t confuse apologizing with simply saying “sorry.” I still say “sorry” when I walk in front of someone in the grocery aisle and temporarily obfuscate their view of the ketchup.
Apologizing is owning up to a specific, serious wrong you’ve done (intentionally or unintentionally, doesn’t matter) and claiming ownership of it. I did it. It requires courage to apologize (remembering not to venture into “but…” territory.) It requires intentionality, we have to find the person, create time and space to talk with them, and deal with difficult emotions. And it requires that we pay enough attention to our relationships to realize when an apology is even necessary.
3. Recognize the other person doesn’t owe you anything
An apology is not a guarantee of an apology, nor does an apology make everything go away instantly. If we apologize, only to immediately offer an ultimatum (Forgive me now, or else we can’t be together, friends, etc.) is just manipulation. We must recognize that all injuries take time to heal, and emotional betrayal is a real injury to our relationships.
As hard as it may be, a heartfelt apology may be met with anger, confusion or continued rage. Those we’ve offended may forgive us or they may not and thats okay. Owning up is an important part of restoring a relationship, and admitting we’ve been in the wrong is essential for ourselves.
If we follow these steps, we can at least say that we have apologized well. Its as simple as admitting fault, asking for forgiveness, and accepting what may come. We know that God calls us to confess. I do not much believe that God is all that interested in knowing all the crazy stuff we’ve done wrong. In fact, scripture leads us to believe that he already knows. So why say it? Why does Jesus say “Repent!” Because we need to own up to our own junk. If we can say it to God, then we are at least admitting we’ve been wrong. We drop the excuses, we drop the “I’m sorry, but…” in our lives and we just give our sins over to God.
Those we apologize to may not forgive us, or it may take awhile, but God has promised that we can and will be forgiven. Christ offers this to us freely. This is grace put on permanent reserve for us to access at anytime. The Spirit is always on duty to wash our souls clean and help us grow out of sin once again. Over and over. Because chances are we’ll be apologizing for dumb things we do for a long time to come, but God is always there to pick us up once again.