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The Sorry State of the Apology


Apr 11 2013
Scriptural responses to society's shallow regret.

The apology seems to be at an all-time high, and simultaneously, an all-time low.

Thanks to public figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Kristen Stewart, David Petraeus, and Anthony Weiner (who's back in the news and spotlight two years after his big apology), Americans have a grid for fallen humans admitting their mistakes in front of others. This is good. What's not so good is the cynical residue we are often left with after hearing their non-apology apology. Though their public mea culpas might make for a great sound bite, they lack the components of a bona fide apology. Sadly, within the church, we rarely do much better.

More than a decade ago, my husband and I were leaders in a vibrant church. The pastor was charismatic and well liked. This same pastor, a married man, called an impromptu leaders' meeting one Saturday night. After we all crowded into one family's living room, he proceeded to communicate that he needed to step down. For the next thirty minutes, he used certain words (romance, needs, passion), while discriminately avoiding others (adultery, betrayal, stupidity). In the process, he justified his behavior rather than admitting his misdeeds and asking for forgiveness. My husband and I walked out stunned, but also furious.

A non-apology apology. Sorry but not sorry.

Though the word apology, as we know it, does not exist in the New Testament, an absence of the specific word does not indicate an absence of the concept. Scripture provides lessons for how to do this well and demonstrates that there is more to making an apology than what a press conference can provide. Take what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (Matt. 5:23-24)

1. The responsibility is on the offender to initiate the apology. No waiting for the offended to come knocking on your door (or discovering a horde of news reporters outside that same door should you happen to be a public figure caught with your pants down).

2. Self-reflection is key. "If you suddenly remember" implies that we should set aside time once a week (prior to going to the altar) to prayerfully explore whether or not we might have hurt someone. This should not lead to morose self-reflection or incessant apologizing. If you can't get through the day without saying "I am sorry," hold-off for 24 hours to determine if you actually did something wrong or if you struggle with shame. Those of you who rarely utter those three words, push yourself.

Related Topics:Bible; Peace; Reconciliation
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