To accept an apology isn’t easy for either person involved. Apologizing can be, if done correctly, a very humbling act. To apologize means guilt has been established and confirmed by the “offending” party. Apologizing encourages the offender to accept responsibility for their role in causing offense. This, however, is hard on pride, and we have to be careful when we accept an apology. Humans, by nature, are prideful. We don’t often like admitting when we are wrong, especially to others. It makes us feel we failed in an area, and forces us to become emotionally attached to the situation.
I recently had to apologize to someone because… well, I was wrong. I made an unintentional comment that was offensive to someone. Upon reflection, I put myself in the shoes of the other person and saw how my comment very well could have offended them. I wrote a sincere apology listing the offence and taking full responsibility for it as the offending party. In essence, I told the person that I had learned a valuable lesson and thanked them for helping me with this blind spot in my life, counseling, and pastoral ministry.
However, the response I received was more lecturing and accusations of intolerance and closed mindedness. There was no acknowledgment or expression of acceptance of the apology.
This got me to thinking about apologies. What is the proper way to apologize and What is the proper response to an apology?
Apologies can also be an expression of sorrow. In other words, the person saying sorry is attempting to be empathetic toward you. In this case, simply accept their apology. They probably are being sincere, and you shouldn’t analyze their intent.
Often, apologies are uttered as a mere afterthought for minor trivialities. For something insignificant, such as bumping into someone or burping, a brief but sincere apology is usually all that is needed.
Of course, then there are those situations that truly merit a more heartfelt apology. Sometimes you are the one who is doing the apologizing, and sometimes you are the recipient.
How do you make the apology?
A sincere apology will include:
- A description of the problem as you understand it
- An explanation of why it happened
- A pronouncement of regret
- A promise not to repeat the offensive action
When you say, “I’m sorry” you are demonstrating respect for the one offended. It says “I care about you, and I want you to understand I made a mistake.” An apology is the same as asking for forgiveness.
How do you respond to an apology?
I think first we need to dig down to the core of what we are talking about. At the core is an “F” word that is hard for all of us to say: FORGIVENESS. At issue is “am I going to forgive this person or not?” Why should I? Just because the “offender” says I’m sorry? No, it goes deeper than that.
In Matthew 18 we get to look through a time warp and see a scene from the first century. The occasion is a man who owes more money than he could pay off in two lifetimes is being called upon to pay his debt. His inability to “pay up” is about to cost him and his family their freedom. To the surprise of all present, the man holding the mortgage tears it up and forgives the debt. Can you imagine the relief!
Then the scene changes to another person who owes a few dollars to the man who has just been forgiven millions. The man who owes a few dollars is shown no mercy from a man that we all would think should be the one person on earth to show mercy and forgiveness.
So I would think the first step in responding to an apology would be to do a self-appraisal. Am I perfect or have I ever needed forgiveness? Am I going to be like mortgage holder one or mortgage holder two?
Step two is to respond honestly. Be honest with the other person about how you are feeling. If you are struggling with forgiveness, tell them. Thank them for their apology and continue to talk through the problem. This can be very important in the growth of a relationship.
Step three is to forgive and move on. A person who has not learned to forgive is a person who carries a lot of pain through an already tough world. I think the most misunderstood fact about forgiveness is the belief that forgiveness is a gift I somehow give to the other person. In one sense it is, but in a more important sense, forgiveness is a gift I give myself.
A friend told me that every offense I have not forgiven is like a meat hook in my soul that is tethered to the offense. Every time move I have to drag that offense with me. Imagine a lifetime of hooks that we drag around. Not a pretty picture! If we want to be free of the pain of the past we have to unhook and move on.
My advice: UNHOOK! FORGIVE! It’ll do you good.