Any squabble in a preschool classroom will show us the main ingredient in moving on is a well placed, “I’m sorry.” But whether it’s to placate the offended party, bring just a moment of peace, or truly intended to help the offender see their wrong, an “I’m sorry” is still just one part of an apology. When I was a young teen the recipe for an apology changed in our household. Where my parents previously just made us say those two little words (I’m sorry.), they began to implement a new way of making peace. These four parts of an apology have stayed with me through adulthood and I utilize them every time I’ve had to eat a piece of humble pie.
Like the preschoolers, an apology does begin with I’m sorry, not to merely bring peace though. It is a recognition on the part of the repenter that an action of theirs has wounded or offended another. Whether or not the skin of the other should be thicker isn’t the point. The point is it’s not about us. Even if we didn’t intend to harm or mean to offend, we can still recognize harm has been felt and we should be sorry about that. In the KJV, Psalm 38:18 says, “I will be sorry for my sin.” Wherever else our recognition of wrongdoing ends, it always begins with sorrow over grieving the heart of God or another.
I Was Wrong For…
An apology always states what the wrong actually was. It doesn’t necessarily mean it takes more responsibility than the wrong actually committed. But it is specific about the sin committed: I’m sorry, I was wrong for taking your toy; saying what I said; leaving something unsaid; doing this action against you. An apology owns sin against God or another. In Job 42:2-6, after Job has accused God of many wrong things, he says:
“I know that you can do anything and no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, “Who is this who conceals my counsel with ignorance?”
Surely I spoke about things I did not understand,
things too wondrous for me to know.
You said, “Listen now, and I will speak.
When I question you, you will inform me.”
I had heard reports about you,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them;
I am dust and ashes.”
Job is specific about his sin in the words he spoke about and to God. We should be specific about our sin toward another in our apologies.
Please Forgive Me?
This may be the most difficult part of an apology. To have sorrowed over how another felt wounded and to have owned our sin seems as though it should be enough. But, just as we do in our confession to God, we have to ask the one we have wronged to forgive us. We risk their onslaught of critique and perhaps even their rejection of our repentance, but it is necessary nonetheless. We can do this in full faith and confidence because we have been fully accepted and forgiven by the God of the universe against whom we have sinned. Mark 3:28 says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” That means, if we are in Christ, all our words against God and God’s ways have been forgiven by God. Therefore we can ask forgiveness of our brother or sister in humility, even if they don’t grant it to us.
How Can I Do Better?
Repentance means to turn and go the other direction, but many times we are unaware of how to do better in a particular situation. Especially if we keep running up against the same situations with the same people or the same situation with many people, we need to recognize that we can do better and that the Spirit of God inside will help us do better. But part of that is asking the offended party how they think we could do better. Perhaps we have a persistent blind-spot, perhaps a character or personality flaw, or perhaps it’s an issue of growth and maturity. Whatever it is, we must finish our apologies with the question, “How can I do better?” and truly listen to the answer. The nature of progressive sanctification means two things: 1. We are not yet finished, and 2. We are being finished right now. Philippians 1:6 says, “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God uses our brothers and sisters to help carry the work of God inside us through to completion, and sometimes we need to ask for their help.
We have absolutely nothing to lose in offering these four phrases early, often, and repeatedly in all of our relationships. We should rather be known for being a repentant people than being an unapologetic people. Our culture tells us to withhold our sorries and stop apologizing, but the example Christ set for us is one of going far beyond the extra mile in taking on the world’s sins for which he was guilty of not even one. The four part apology is ultimately less about an exercise in humility and more an example of worship to our glorious and good Savior.