The Art of the Apology

Jun 22, 2012 |Carolyn McCulley

"I'm sorry if ..." doesn't cut it.

As apologies go, this one was really lame.

Worse yet, it was delivered over email a few days too late: "Hey, too bad I couldn't make it on Saturday. Something came up. Sorry if it caused a problem."

Anna hit the delete button and swallowed her resentment. The previous Saturday she had hosted a dinner party for several friends. It was the culmination of several weeks of planning, a sizable cash outlay, two nights of cleaning, and one day of cooking. It was a labor of love for several good friends — and a potential audition for the role of a wife. She had hoped her domestic skills would be appreciated and projected into the future by a certain single man. But he was AWOL by the time dinner was served.

"That's what I get for making the effort," she mumbled to herself as the tears began their descent. "He is so not worth it."

The next time Anna saw Mark at a singles event, she refused to make eye contact and coolly walked away.

"I can't believe it — she blew me off," Mark complained to his buddy. "Did you see that? I apologized to her and now she won't even talk to me!"

Sorry if ...

Those two words are a dodge. They attempt to address the tension in the air, but they diffuse nothing. "If" implies the offense isn't evident, requiring the speaker to offer a vague assessment of the problem while skirting any responsibility for it. A simple "sorry" is an air-kiss in the direction of a true acknowledgment of wrong-doing. Offered together, they typically fuel the offense, rather than placate it.

This is the kind of phrase we typically utter when we recognize there is tension in a relationship, but we don't want to put in the hard work to accomplish genuine reconciliation.

And it always comes across as hollow as it is.

Repentance to the Rescue

The "sorry if" statement hasn't a leg to stand on because it's missing the core of a true apology: the recognition of injury or wrong-doing, and a genuine expression of repentance for it.

We were created with an innate sense of justice. Even young children recognize this with their offended cries of "it's not faa-air!" Our culture has grown more litigious as the "sorry if" statements have proliferated. But now some segments of society are beginning to recognize the bottom-line impact. Since 2003, several states have passed what's known as "doctor apology laws." Some hospital administrators say apologies help defuse patient anger and prevent lawsuits that have helped drive up doctors' malpractice insurance rates. These laws allow physicians to apologize when treatment goes wrong, without having to fear that their words will be used against them in court. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, studies show that negligence is not the most important factor in people's decision to file a lawsuit, but rather, ineffective communication between patients and providers.

In other words, we long to hear that the other person recognizes the injury or injustice — and is genuinely remorseful about it.

When I was growing up, my parents would steadfastly maintain that it takes two to start a fight. Whenever the squeals of anger and conflict would erupt, one or both of them would come into the room, demanding to know what was going on. Like the good little sinners we were, we'd immediately point out the wrong-doing of our siblings, expecting that the other one would get punished. Invariably, we jointly received correction. We weren't very swift to figure out that blame-shifting didn't work. In fact, it has never worked. It didn't work in the Garden of Eden — when Adam tried to blame both God and Eve, and Eve passed the blame on to the serpent — and it doesn't work now. Why? Because our own "righteousness" in any conflict will never measure up to God's perfect holiness.

Scripture says our conflicts are fueled by hidden agendas, cravings and self-centered demands. James 4:1-3 makes this very clear:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Christians are walking objects of mercy; as such, we are called to remember how much we have been forgiven — and to make that truth a reality in our relationships. Though we have been forgiven by God through the cross of Christ, we will struggle with indwelling sin until we see our Lord in glory. Therefore, we are to be quick to recognize our own sinful tendencies and motivations, first before God and then with others.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:5-10)

When we have conflict and tension in our relationships, the Bible calls us to examine our own hearts and to own, without blame-shifting, the sins we have committed. A true apology is honest about sin — labeling it as the Bible does — and seeks to restore fellowship through repentance and forgiveness.

The Art of the Apology

So let's look back at the conflict between Mark and Anna. Some might glibly write this off as the usual tension of expectations between single men and women. In social occasions, women often make more of an effort than men do, 'tis true. (Of course, I do recognize that some men are much better hosts and chefs than the bulk of the population, so I am speaking generally here.) Therefore, a man might not realize how much time and money has gone into a dinner invitation that he has treated so casually. I hope this column serves as an alert for anyone so innocent about the work that goes into offering hospitality of any kind. May we all improve in our efforts to faithfully respond to social invitations in a timely way, to keep the commitments we've made and to express our gratitude afterward.

This article, however, is not about etiquette. It's about reconciliation. And in Mark's case, he was sowing to laziness and self-centeredness when he decided to skip the dinner party. The day of the event, he didn't feel like going out. He just wanted to hang around the house and watch TV. So when a friend invited himself over to watch a new movie, Mark decided to blow off the dinner party. He figured it wouldn't be a big deal if he didn't show up.

It was a big deal to Anna, though. It would have been rude if any guest had decided to bow out without explanation at the last moment, but because she had expectations of him, she was especially disappointed. His nonchalant, non-apology only fueled her anger, so she felt justified in blowing him off at the next singles meeting.

Sin and selfishness are everywhere present in this scenario, but there is a way out! When Mark felt the pinch of his conscience that prompted him to send his "sorry if" apology attempt, it would have been better if he had stopped first to pray. Through prayer, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us the things we are blind to: the self-centered focus, the sinful motivations of comparison or people-pleasing, the self-righteousness that we feel entitled to express, etc. Then it's good to find some Scriptures that address these areas so we can apologize and ask forgiveness in biblical terms and not hide behind the fuzzy, sin-minimizing language of our culture.

For example, Mark's apology would have been better if he had identified his contribution to the conflict and asked for forgiveness in this manner: "Anna, I am sorry for skipping your dinner party. It was self-centered of me not to think about how this would affect your plans and it certainly didn't show any gratitude for your hospitality. I was tired and preferred staying home to watch a movie, but this didn't consider your interests as more important than my own. God has convicted me of this. Would you please forgive me for my selfishness and lack of consideration?"

This kind of apology reflects true repentance, clearly names the biblical categories of sin, and then asks for forgiveness. For Anna's part, she should not blow this off with a simple, "That's OK" or "Don't worry about it." That response minimizes the confession and the request for forgiveness. Since Anna had also contributed to the conflict, a gracious response would be something like this: "Mark, I do forgive you. Now I have to ask you to forgive me for responding in anger to you and unkindly snubbing you at the meeting. I should have used that opportunity to ask you questions, instead of sinfully judging you. Would you please forgive me for my anger?"

In this particular scenario, Anna needed to ask for forgiveness, as well. But if she had not returned unkindness with more of the same, and Mark had made this same apology, then her response should be different: "I wondered what had happened, Mark, so it's good to hear your explanation. I was hurt that you didn't show up, but I'm glad to forgive you — especially in light of all that God has forgiven me."

But what about Anna's crush and her expectations of Mark? This is where wisdom and discretion would dictate that she not lay this burden on him. He is innocent in the matter of her hopes for a future relationship and the burden of expectation that she has here. But she should confess this to a trusted accountability partner. Because of her dashed hopes, her reaction to Mark was more heated than it would have been had any other guest cancelled. She wanted to impress him, so her motivation for throwing the dinner party was partially based out of self-promotion.

This aspect she should confess to her accountability partner, who could help Anna identify potential idolatry, fear of man, lack of trust in God, and sinful desires to impress others — and help her to repent before God. (An important disclaimer: Anna was not wrong for throwing a dinner party and inviting a man she liked. It was her reaction to the "squeeze" of the disappointing circumstances that was sinful.)

A "sorry if" statement not only falls short of a real apology, it misses the mark of Christian forgiveness. The well-crafted, biblically-based apology is an art unto itself. It reveals the glory of conviction of sin and the grace of forgiveness, and wraps it in the beauty of humility — all for the praise of the glory of God.

Copyright 2007 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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