The Importance of Apology

“I’m sorry, it’s just that [something I can justify as not my fault] happened, so I had to [do/say something I shouldn’t do or not do/say something I was supposed to do/say].”

“No worries.”
[I’ll pretend I’m cool enough to not let this bother me, so no big deal, even though I’m annoyed with you.]

If you’re at all like me, this conversation is more common than you want to admit. Person One makes a mistake and “apologizes,” and Person Two dismisses the apology saying that what happened wasn’t significant enough to matter.

No big deal, right? Um. No.

The words “I’m sorry” are some of the most powerful in the world, strengthened by the immediate question, “will you please forgive me?” and acknowledged with a genuine, “yes.” (Or no, and then there’s an entirely different conversation needed.)

I find that even with the simplest offenses, this 3-sentence, 2- part conversation matters more than we think for two important reasons.

…ONE: Hurt people are mostly hurt people because of broken relationship. Broken relationship is often caused by a series of seemingly insignificant offenses left unacknowledged. We hurt the people we love the most because instead of owning up to what we did wrong and taking the 20 seconds it takes to awkwardly (yes, it’s awkward) and intentionally request forgiveness not assumed, we make an excuse granted by their unspoken permission. It appears to matter not as we go about our days being late, forgetting to return phone calls, speaking harshly or whatever else that happens, happens, and is truly a mistake or misstep we should own.

The habit of apology, requesting forgiveness and answering that question, creates a rhythm in relationship that prevents decay over time and reflects humility. And with any other habit, we must practice it on a daily basis in order for it to be a normal, natural response when it comes to the bigger mistakes that overtly are a problem calling for intentional conversation. If I don’t run regularly, attempting a marathon would cause great injury and pain. I might get through the 26.2-miles, but it wouldn’t be easy and may damage my body in ways that wouldn’t if I had prepared properly. Similarly, when are in the habit of apologizing, no matter who it is we have wronged – the grocery store clerk we’ll never see again, our BFF we talk to ten times a day or the person in our office who we see all the time but don’t really know – we are more prepared for the deeper, more significant challenges to relationship that inevitability are a part of life.

…TWO: Apologies have more to do with us than others, particularly if you are one to call yourself a Christian and hang out in Christian community. The basic premise of the Christian faith is that we are all a mess and that’s why we need Jesus. We can’t have a relationship with the perfect God who created us as we are an imperfect mess, and He loves us too much to not have a relationship with us. We find forgiveness for sin against God and others in God Himself though Jesus. It’s pretty cool.

But in the Church today, we are terrible at being honest with ourselves and others. We don’t admit to even our closest friends when we make mistakes, especially those that are easily identified as sin. When it comes to other Christians, we are afraid that they will think we don’t have it all together and are failing some nonexistent moral test that we all must pass to be accepted. And we don’t want our non-Christian friends to see our sin because then they may think that we’re hypocritical and not want to be a part of what we think is so awesome and important: Faith in Jesus Christ.

Instead, we walk around making excuses and not bothering to apologize, so we don’t have a language for discussing our own failings and mistakes we make, despite how many mistakes we make every day. (I make a lot.) According to the research in Sticky Faith by Dr. Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin and Dr. Cheryl A. Crawford, this means that when what is considered a great moral failure occurs, one of those embarrassing sins that has more recognizable consequence than others, there are sadly no words or comfort in returning to our community of faith for redemption and healing because we don’t know how to, which is so messed up in so many ways. There’s a problem when a faith built on the premise that we are all messed up people doesn’t have a place to deal with people who mess up.

At the risk of being accused of saying “I’m sorry” too often, I wonder what it might do to our lives if we start apologizing without making excuses and asking people for forgiveness instead of assuming that it’s granted? Of course, when not genuine or sincere and said out of false humility or wanting to look nice for the sake of being nice, it’s waste of time and can actually have negative side effects. But when we take the time to habitually admit our mistakes, even in the tiniest of things, we not only do we ooze God’s love and kindness and to the people with whom we cross paths for a moment or a lifetime but also reflect the humility of Jesus that protects and creates healthy relationships when it matters the most. And who doesn’t want to have healthy relationships?

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