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Mistakes were made.

I’m sorry if what I did hurt you.

I’m sorry but it wasn’t my fault.

Apologies, it seems, are hard to make. We all have had the experience of receiving an apology that didn’t satisfy. And if we are really honest, we’ve given apologies that didn’t cut it. Ever considered what it is that makes for a good apology? At minimum, a good apology requires:

  1. An attitude of ownership. Notice how hard it can be to own your actions without blaming someone or something else. It is especially hard to apologize when our actions seem insignificant in comparison to the actions of the person we offended. Even when we don’t lay the blame at someone’s feet we likely want to explain our actions so that we do not look so bad. Unfortunately, an explanation sounds too much like an excuse or denial. It is best to save the explanation for later…or even better, to give the offended party the freedom to decline.
  2. A willingness to sit with our wrong.We find it especially hard to tolerate someone bringing up our sins after making an apology. Ever thought or said, “I’ve apologized already. Why are you bringing this up?” Such thoughts, though common, reveal a belief that sins apologized for should not be remembered or discussed. When reminded of our sins soon after an apology, a defensive reaction may reveal our lack of ownership (see #1). When reminded of our sins at a much later date, a defensive reaction may reveal a belief that apologies should also eliminate the consequences of our sins. If you did something worthy of an apology, then be willing to own and accept the consequences, even if years later. Such ownership does not imply that you intended to harm the person for years but that your sin had longstanding consequences. And be grateful that God, who is rich in mercy, does not hold them against you because of the Cross.
  3. Action to make it right. The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 gives us a clear example of how to follow up an apology with action. Apologies that are words without repenting actions (either corrective or restorative) are considered empty. Zacchaeus does not merely stop cheating others. He now begins to give back, going beyond what was required by law so that he could be a blessing to others. Galatians 4:28 tells us that thieves must not just stop stealing but now should work—must do something useful (NIV).  

If you are interested in reading more on the art of apology (and the myriad ways we fail), you might consider Aaron Lazare’s On Apology (OUP, 2004). In his little book he points out a few important features of apology not already noted here, including:  “I’m sorry” may cause confusion since it doesn’t signal whether the speaker is remorseful or merely regretful; perfunctory apologies fail to reveal the motivations of the offender; culture influences features in apology; apologies are about restoring the dignity of the offended as well as promising safety from future harm.

What do you most look for in an apology? Reparations? Expressions of shame? A commitment to repent? An explanation for offense? Which expressions of apology most offend you?

For more of my thoughts on public apology failures, on the loss of dignity during apologies, or hoped for apologies, click the above hot links or go to my blog, http://www.wisecounsel.wordpress.comand search for “apology.”

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychology and Director of the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates. He blogs regularly at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/phillip-monroe

Comments 

 
0 #2 Philip Monroe 2012-01-17 18:56
Gary, you are correct. Forgiven, we are emowered to remove our fig leaves.
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0 #1 Gary Sexton 2012-01-17 10:00
Apologies can be more genuine (ownership) when we hear the Saviour's cry from the Cross: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." When we have encountered the saving mercy of God, we can in humility know/admit that we know exactly what we've done.
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