A few months ago I witnessed an apology between two Christians, a married couple. It was painful to watch.
The guy apparently made a demeaning comment to his wife in front of her family. He thought he was just being funny and told her to lighten up. She was wounded and the weekend with the family went downhill from there.
So, here they are in my office, each telling me their side of the story, but the man was clearly out of line disrespecting his wife and I tried to get him to understand. His wife was tearing up just thinking about the incident.
Finally, the husband a well-educated, professional, said the following, without even looking at her, in a voice that sounded more weary than repentant, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. Will you forgive me?”
I watched his wife’s face to see how she was receiving this lame apology and as I anticipated, she appeared to be even sadder than before. In the meantime, her Neanderthal husband naively waited for her to say, “I forgive you”. While it wasn’t the worst apology I’ve ever heard, it got me thinking about why a sincere, satisfying and truly healing apology is so hard. So, let’s talk about what makes a good apology, and then I’ll share some of my “favorite”, worst apologies and why they are.
At the end of this blog, I’ll be asking you to share your worst apology experience (no names please) and why it failed to heal. Hopefully, we can all learn from each other.
A sincere apology has these basic elements:
1. It admits personal responsibility. (I was wrong.)
2. It names the offense. (When I did “x”.)
3. It promises change, not perfection. (I’ll try to never to do “x” again.)
4. It expresses heartfelt remorse. (I’m truly sorry.)
5. It offers a remedy if possible. (What can I do to make it right?)
6. It hopes to be forgiven without expecting immediate forgiveness. (I hope you can forgive me.)
While the word apology isn’t found in scripture, these verses capture some of the spirit behind and value of an authentic apology.
“Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.” II Corinthians 7:9
The anatomy of a bad apology
So, let’s dissect the guy’s apology in the opening of this blog. What was wrong with it? Almost everything. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, will you forgive me?”
1. He took no personal responsibility for what he did to cause her sadness. (If I hurt you, implies that he’s not sure if he hurt her at all!)
2. He didn’t name the offense. So, I’m not sure if he really understands what he actually did wrong. Therefore, his wife has no confidence it won’t happen again. Personally, I can attest to the fact that I’ve personally apologized for something, believing I understood the offense, but didn’t. (See the video at the end of the blog.)
3. He didn’t promise to change or even offer to try.
4. He offered no remedy (i.e. Would you like me to call or email your family?)
5. He asked her to forgive him in the form of a question that implied he expected an immediate answer. His wife did say, “yes” but, it was forced and awkward. I sensed the husband was ready to move on, but his wife was not, emotionally. I would have preferred he ask his wife to forgive him and then give her time to do so once she’s processed the apology.
So, let’s run through what I believe would have been a much more sincere and healing apology. He might have turned his whole body toward her and looking her directly in the eyes, said with true humility and empathy;
“Mary, I am so sorry I made that remark about your weight in front of your family. It was thoughtless, cruel and disrespectful. You have every right to expect better from me, your husband. Is there anything I can do to make it better? Please forgive me.”
Then I’d recommend silence for a few minutes, leave the room and give his wife time to process what he said and not make his wife feel forced into saying anything prematurely. The more serious the offense, the longer this may take. (Months, many months in the case of an affair, repeated alcohol and drug issues, for example.) Don’t push it. It has to come naturally. Remember, it’s your job to win the trust of the offended person, not their job to force themselves to trust you (which isn’t possible anyway).
I’ve been a bit hard on guys, but it’s also been my experience that women can also find apologies difficult, especially with other women or their siblings. Ultimately, the Holy Grail of a sincere apology is changed behavior and a teachable spirit. That’s what God wants – that’s what we all want.
My other “favorite”, bad apologies
1. “I’m sorry I got mad at you yesterday, but I was having a bad day.” (An apology with an excuse, is no apology.)
2. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” An apology like that sounds like someone other than yourself hurt the person you’re apologizing to and you’re simply empathizing with their misfortune. Again, without an admission of personal responsibility for your part in causing the hurt, there’s no real apology at all.
With Christmas coming up, the potential for offending someone is high, so pray for special grace and patience. Take some time this week to discuss this blog with your spouse or a good friend. Resist using it to beat them on the head with their apology shortcomings, but ask them if your apologies to them feel satisfying.
Even though I teach this stuff and have been married close to 45 years now, there are times I have thoughtlessly offered lame, even insulting apologies and then I’m shocked when my wife doesn’t receive them well or forgive me instantly.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
Question: What’s the worst apology you’ve ever given or received, and what made it so unsatisfying?
Following Jesus in Real Life