Learning to say, “I’m sorry”

October 06, 2009

Tuesday re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

(Read this post in connection with this previous post on Learning to Say, “Ouch”. They belong together, because that is what happens in reconciliation. )

Remember when your little brother did something really mean and hateful to you or to your stuff and you “told on him”?  And remember how your mom grabbed him by the ear and dragged him over to you and literally forced him to say the words “I’m sorry” under threat of some unspeakably horrible punishment?  Do you remember how you felt after that happened?

WAIT!  …o.k., you felt like you got your revenge and you enjoyed seeing him nearly get his entire ear ripped off the side of his head…but what about the apology?  Did it make you feel reconciled to him?

Of course it didn’t.  Because that is about as poor as apologies get in terms of actually bringing any healing to a situation.  But what if you could actually learn to express regret in a way that adds value to a relationship?  After all, feeling genuine regret in your heart is one thing, but learning to express it in a way which heals a broken relationship is another thing altogether.  If there were some practical things to learn, some skills to perfect in terms of communication, some things that would help you make a positive difference in your relationships, would it be worth your while to learn them?

We have an amazing example of the kind of apology that brings healing in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 11:21).  Using the prodigal’s apology as a kind of model, here are some things we learn about how to express regret in a relationship:

1.  Apologize, avoiding excuses and explanations. The son didn’t do any backpedaling, he didn’t apologize and then use words like “if” or “but”, he didn’t try to soften the precise edge of his apology at all.  He didn’t offer any explanations for why he did what he did (maybe that happened later in conversation with his father, but he did not ruin his apology by offering it now, in the middle of his confession).  He just said what he did and apologized for it.  When you confess to a brother/sister (spouse? family member?), and you have poured out your heart, confessing exactly what you did wrong, and then you use the word “but”, this person is not going to remember anything that came before the word “but”.  You have just erased it all.  Frankly, it would be better not to confess at all until you can do it without backpedaling.

2.  Be willing to accept whatever consequences may follow. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son”, said the prodigal son to his father.  He envisioned the most dire possible consequence and was ready to accept it.  Here is what is important about this aspect of an apology: you don’t get to be the one to decide the consequences.  You don’t get to have an opinion about whether the consequences are too harsh.  You just accept the consequences, whatever they may be.  Anything short of that leaves your confession/apology short of actually doing your part to bring healing to the relationship.

3.  Ask, “Will you forgive me for this?” The request for forgiveness was implied in the son’s actions, but in your situation, I would NOT leave it open to interpretation.  By asking the question, “Will you forgive me for this?” you literally transfer the power from you (the offending person) to the injured person, giving  him/her the opportunity (if he/she chooses) to hurt you back.  It represents a significant shift in the relationship when you humble yourself enough to empower the other person to either extend forgiveness or not.  More importantly, if you have done this correctly and if you have a genuine heart full of regret, it doesn’t matter to you how they answer that question.  You have taken care of your half of the relationship.  Let them be responsible for their half.  That’s not to say you don’t grieve if a brother refuses to forgive…it just means the brokenness in the relationship is now his to deal with, and no longer yours.

4.  Make sure you have embraced their pain. “I have sinned against God and against you” said the prodigal son.  With a single sentence, he captures the pain his father was no doubt feeling.  When you go to apologize to someone, make sure you understand the full extent of the pain caused.  If you are not sure you do, then ask!  Give them the opportunity to lay that pain out on the table, so that you can pick it up, acknowledge it and deal with it.  Your little brother’s “apology” never quite cut it for you, because your pain was never dealt with.  Deal with the feelings of the person who is hurt and you will be surprised how much healing comes over the relationship.

Ponder this: what if the body of believers where you worship were one where this kind of communication not only happens regularly, but is taught and valued and is a part of the culture there?  Can you imagine how powerful that would be?  I can.  It’s what keeps me going in this ministry!

© Blake Coffee

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