I write about forgiveness fairly often, not because I am good at it, but because I always need to work on it. Recently, I came across this podcast on Facebook, and since it was about forgiveness, I listened to it. Although this ministry exists primarily to help marriages, I think the principles about forgiveness apply to all of our relationships.
Chris Grace and Tim Muehlhoff of Biola University explain that a good apology includes the following words:
I'm sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.
Have you ever had someone speak these words to you, and still, in your heart, felt that you would not forgive?
Certain circumstances, egregious or continual offenses, can make forgiveness hard. For instance, if somebody burned your house down, or if your marriage partner broke faith and committed adultery against you, or if someone killed your child, no matter how repentant they were, you still might struggle to forgive. They've destroyed something that can never be replaced. How can you forgive in the face of such loss? Or what about people who continually let you down, promising and habitually failing to keep their promises? They say they are sorry, admit they are wrong, ask humbly for forgiveness, but then go back and do exactly the same thing, over and over again.
There are situations that make forgiveness even harder than it is otherwise, and it is plenty hard in any situation. Notwithstanding, a good, thorough apology truly helps in the forgiveness process.
Grace and Muehlhoff brought out the idea that Christians sometimes play an unfair "trump card" (I put the term in quotes because it isn't a valid trump card) in demanding forgiveness--since it is commanded in the Bible--without giving a complete or compassionate apology. They blurt out, "I'm sorry," not sounding particularly sorry at all, but figuring that since they have gone through the ignominy of speaking the dreaded words, "I'm sorry," they are absolved. The case is closed. The offended party is required to extend forgiveness, forget it ever happened, and never mention it again.
There is no apology if there is no compassion.
"I'm sorry," means that the speaker feels compassion, sorrow. The word "sorry" comes from the word "sorrow."
To say, "I'm sorry," means that you have considered the other person's point of view. You have taken time to imagine walking in his shoes, and you have understood something of the hurt or frustration he feels.
"I'm sorry," means, "My heart has sorrow for the pain you feel."
Now, this may or may not communicate responsibility for those feelings. When someone loses a loved one, we often say, "I'm sorry." We are sorry for his loss, his grief. We feel compassion. We do not feel responsible. There are many times when we feel sad for someone, and when we do, we say, "I'm sorry," to express our sympathy for his situation, not because we think we evoked his pain.
One should never say, "I'm sorry," in an angry, sarcastic tone of voice and then storm out of the room, for that is a lie. In such an instance, what the person means is, "I'm frustrated with you for being frustrated with me and I'm not going to talk about this anymore." It is a total communication breakdown, and--in fact--the opposite of compassion. If it is an attempt by a Christian to invoke the requirement of forgiveness from another Christian, then it is worse than a lie. It lying for the purpose of exploiting and manipulating. It is not fair.
This is why the second phrase in the apology is so very important:
I was wrong.
Here, the offender not only expresses compassion for the feelings of the offended, he also takes responsibility for causing the feelings. It is even better if the offender names the actual point of offense: "I was wrong when I [--insert short description of the offensive behavior-- ]."
This may be painful for me, if I am the one who committed the offense. I may not like the humiliation of reliving my failure by talking about it. But it is a very good thing to do, because although it may cause me some pain, it will ultimately heal the relationship. It's like digging out a sliver. It hurts to dig a sliver out, but the wound heals much more quickly and completely once it's removed. Also, the earlier you work on cleaning it up, the easier it is.
When you don't get the sliver out, a scar forms over it, and there it is, a lasting visible reminder of the injury. Do you want to clunk up your relationships with scar-covered slivers? Or are you willing to do the good but painful work of removing the slivers and making the relationship as beautiful as it can be?
Grace and Muehlhoff brought out the idea that sometimes a hurt person needs to sift through what happened, as part of his forgiveness process. Sometimes the issue requires discussion. In order for trust to be rebuilt, the hurt person needs to be reassured that the other person recognizes how his behavior was hurtful, and that he has a plan for how to avoid causing the same hurt in the future. The person who caused the hurt may refuse to talk about it, claiming, "You are a bitter, unforgiving, wicked person, certainly not a Christian, because you are not supposed to keep bringing this up." If he does, the other person, being a Christian, may (and should) still forgive him. However, the trust will be eroded rather than rebuilt.
There is a difference between bringing something up because the hurt is lingering as a result of a need for better closure in the forgiveness process, and bringing something up to humiliate and manipulate and try to get one-up on the other person.
This requires discernment.
If you can honestly say, "We have discussed this before, and I have owned my wrongdoing. I am sorry that I hurt you when I [ --insert short description of the offensive behavior-- ]. It was wrong of me, and I have asked you to forgive me for doing this. When you keep bringing it, up, I feel as though you have not forgiven me. Have you forgiven me? Can we stop bringing it up?"-- if you can honestly say this, it is a fair thing to say. If, however, the subject continues to resurface because you refuse to name and own your offense, then you may need to reconsider whether you have apologized appropriately. Sometimes you may even need to make some sort of restitution; for instance, if you told a lie, you may need to go back and set the record straight. Relationships are wrecked when wrongs remain outstanding.
Often, especially in Christian circles, people get stuck forgiving people who are neither compassionate nor repentant. It is what we are called to do. But if you are a Christian, and you are forcing someone else to forgive you without offering an honest apology, then you are in sin, and you are causing an injustice. It is more fair, more just, for you--when you are the offending party--to have some pain in the forgiveness process, than for an offended party to have pain. The offended party already underwent pain; you caused it, and that's why you need his forgiveness. Don't cause more pain. If it's your fault, then suck it up and take your lumps. The other person has to forgive you; that's on him, whether or not you apologize. But if you do things to hinder his forgiveness, that's on you, and you should not take it lightly. The eyes of the Lord are everywhere.
What if you honestly don't believe that you were wrong, though? What then?
This calls for discernment as well.
There are people who call it "hurt" when they are simply angry that they did not get their way about something. "I wanted another ice-cream cone, and you would only buy me one ice-cream cone, so you hurt my feelings!" This is pretty easy. You say, "I'm sorry that you feel angry because I did not buy you a second ice-cream cone. I do not like to make you angry. I would rather make you happy. However, two ice-cream cones would not be good for you, and it would be a waste of money. I hope you will try to understand my reasons for not buying the second ice-cream cone." This would generally be an adult-child situation. I recognize that adult-adult situations are more complex. My advice: don't talk to an adult as though you were talking to a child, even if you feel that he should not be upset, and that you did nothing wrong.
Sometimes you are not wrong.
Sometimes you are wrong but you resist acknowledging it, because none of us likes to be wrong.
Here is a list of questions you can ask yourself in a situation where someone wants an apology from you, but you do not believe that you are wrong:
- Have I taken this issue to God and invited Him to examine my heart? We need to invite God to search our hearts and see if there is any offensive way in them. Our hearts are deceitful, and we cannot trust ourselves. We always default to self-justification. We must begin by laying the issue before the Lord and letting Him show us His perspective on what is happening. Realize that only God is ever perfectly right. In any conflict between humans, some people are more right, and some people are more wrong, but there is never a person who is perfectly right.
- Am I being compassionate? Am I obeying Philippians 2, and placing the other person's interests ahead of my own? Am I choosing humility over vain conceit or selfish ambition? Am I respecting the other person's viewpoint? Am I willing to close my eyes and imagine how this looks and feels to the other person? Is my goal to show compassion, or is my goal to prove that I am right? Am I, or am I not, concerned that I have caused pain?
- Am I focusing on what I perceive that the other person did, and how I feel about it? This is the natural default, and it is good to be aware that this is where our hearts will naturally turn. I may have done something unintentionally, but it may have been hurtful to the other person. When the other person says, "Hey! That hurt me!" my default is probably to focus on what the other person did (point out my mistake) and how I feel about it (angry and embarrassed). Instead, I need to be willing to focus on what I did, and how my actions made the other person feel. Turn the whole thing around. Seriously, do I want the "freedom" to go around obliviously hurting and offending people, or do I want to mend my ways and heal my relationships?
- Do I honestly feel sorrow over the other person's distress? Or am I simply annoyed with the other person for being distressed? If I don't feel sorrow for having caused distress, should I? If I should feel bad, but I don't, why don't I? Do I accept responsibility for myself? Do I care about the effects of my actions on others? Does it bother me to have division in this relationship? Based on this person's relationship to me, what stakes do I have in mending-vs-avoiding the issue?
- What am I prioritizing in this situation? Am I more interested in prideful self-justification, or in kindness and reconciliation? If I am prioritizing justice, how might an application of grace be of value? If I am prioritizing my comfort, is it more comfortable to prove myself right than to live in grace and harmony? If I am prioritizing what I honestly believe to be the most ethical course of action, how can I openly and compassionately communicate with the other person to help us both focus on where we agree rather than where we are at odds?
- Am I being defensive? It is never productive to be defensive. If you are right, you don't need a defense. If you are wrong, you don't have a defense. So don't be defensive. Compassion will yield much better fruit than defensiveness, every time.
- Am I demonstrating the love of Christ? Above all things, the Bible tells us, put on love, for love covers over a multitude of wrongs. Grace means we can choose to pay the price for someone else. Sometimes, if you respond to someone's hurt with a compassionate, prompt and sincere apology, the other person will realize that he also played a part in the problem, and he will reciprocate with an apology to you. Sometimes he won't. (Sometimes he shouldn't have to.) It's your job to do the right thing, in any case. If you've caused someone to have a problem with you, then you should help him forgive you, by apologizing. This is responsible and loving.
Please forgive me.
Here is the last phrase in a complete apology. Usually, if you did the first part well, the forgiveness will flow freely. It always does from God.
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