We have talked a lot around our campfire about forgiveness, and we have talked a little about confession, and we have even touched on saying sorry when discussing the Ho’oponopono prayer. (“I’m sorry, thank you, I love you, please forgive me.”) But we don’t talk much in church about apologies: even though, in the Sermon on the Mount, where our call to worship came from, Jesus also said: “ ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
In a conversation about kindness on Facebook this week, my sister identified a common problem in church culture. She said kindness is often interpreted as “pretending things are ok when they aren’t - excusing behaviour that is not acceptable because it is ‘kind’ (easier), rather than honestly addressing wrongdoing in the community (particularly where the wrongdoing comes from ‘authority’ figures). It seems to me that this principle is regularly used emotively to manipulate situations, and to keep people from protesting against wrongs... It is sometimes very hard to hold wrongdoing to account, and raise issues of truth and justice, without appearing ‘unkind’.”
Yes. Yes! Apologies are the other half of forgiveness, and I think our understanding of both is wrapped up in this. As a consequence, I think many people don’t even know how to apologise, because the choice seems to be between stern refusal to admit the slightest fault, or utter abasement of self, conceding all.
So, this week, though I have doubts and misgivings, I am going to talk about apologising. During my prayers, this is what the Spirit laid on my heart to bring to you today; the words I was given were, “Say it like you mean it.” I don’t know who needs to hear it, and I want to reassure you that this isn’t passive-aggression directed at any individual or group on my part! This is not a lecture. Also, despite the landmark events of this week, my focus is on interpersonal connection, not social justice – although the same truths may apply to each. These are simply some of the things I’ve learned about how to say sorry, as I believe the Spirit has asked me to share them with you today.
I chose the reading about Jacob and Esau that Sue read so beautifully for us, because I remember how deeply it struck a chord with me when I first read it as a child. The sense of fear and guilt over wrongdoing, growing dread in facing the hurt party, wrestling over what to do, and the relief of forgiveness and reconciliation; these were all things that I recognised from my own experience. In childhood, the events may be small, but the feelings are writ as large as in any epic. I am a person who has regularly been in trouble, inadvertently insulting and angering others, failing to meet basic expectations, responding from self-centred ignorance, and more. I have had much to apologise for, and always will. I know I am not alone in this.
There may be plenty of people who owe you an apology, and you may be certain that it will never be forthcoming. And, likewise, you’ve probably had people demand apologies of you for no good reason when you felt you had done no wrong. So the whole topic may provoke very unhappy feelings in you. I want to honour those feelings and their validity. There are people who have hurt you and done nothing to put it right. I am sorry that they have treated you this way. May Jesus hold you and ease your suffering.
Can you think of a time when someone did offer an apology that was sorely needed? I can. I can feel the relief in my body, how the tears welled up, how the knot of tension was undone by their sincere and contrite words. Like Esau, I rushed to embrace them.
And yet I didn’t really learn to apologise myself until I was an adult. What can I say? I’m a slow developer. First, I had to learn to admit when I was wrong, and not to reflexively defend myself or justify my mistake. Apology, not apologetics. Although, in order to put things right, you may at times be called upon to explain yourself, explaining yourself is not itself an apology, and will often undermine your efforts to repair damage.
The need for apology arises when you have hurt someone. You may not have intended to hurt them, but if you can see you have, and if you care about them, then an apology is due. It may be hard if you aren’t used to it! Just like anything else, apologies grow easier with practice.
Sometimes you may choose not to offer an apology. I was in an altercation this week in which someone remarked on Facebook on British vs American spelling, I disagreed with them, and they responded, “WRONG!” in all caps. When I queried their behaviour, the person said that I had not even apologised for being wrong, and that now I was tone policing them, and this was abusive. Of course, I thought he was entirely wrong, and told him so, and neither offered an apology nor required one of him!
You don’t have to apologise just because someone says you should. Apologies are relational, like forgiveness. They shape the relationship you have with another person. Just like forgiveness, it may take time before you feel ready to offer an apology. But you offer it because you care about someone you have hurt, and because you are seeking to make amends. From that point of view, you might sometimes choose to apologise even when you felt that you were in the right, because healing the relationship might be more important. Relationships that come with scorecards are inherently stressful, and I encourage you to avoid them.
Having said that, there is an important caveat. I am thinking at this time about the regular hurts and grievances of friendships and family relationships. Where there is abuse, or where hurt is severe or ongoing, being the one who is required to submit and make apology may be part of the toxic power dynamic of that relationship. Hurt feelings are often two-way. Part of learning to apologise is learning to go first. But if this is always a one-way script, in which one party is the apologiser and the other party the forgiver, there is probably a bigger issue with the underlying dynamic of the relationship which needs investigation.
Apologies can also be weaponised for emotional blackmail. You don’t have to forgive someone just because they apologised to you. Apologies can also disguise or be undercut by their secondary clauses. I saw a picture this week of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, captioned with the words, “I’m sorry if you feel you have died.” Hah! An apology that turns fault back on the other party, or that fails to specify and own what has been done, does not do any good, and may do further harm, while robbing the aggrieved party of their legitimacy. It’s a sneaky, fake apology. You are not obliged to accept apologies in lieu of restorative justice.
Perhaps worse than “I’m sorry if” is “I’m sorry, but”. When you follow up an apology with “but”, you will almost certainly destroy any positive effects of your apology and fan the flames of the argument. It is an apology for a gun shot while your finger is still on the trigger. To do its work, an apology must stand alone. No ifs, no buts. Say it like you mean it!
To be able to do this demands humility of us. Not a degrading, sycophantic, total abasement of the self. Remember how Esau stopped Jacob’s bowing by rushing to greet him? He didn’t want that. Apologies come from a place of love and authenticity, and they make us vulnerable, but when we make them, we stand in power. We don’t collapse before the other person, we stand and reach out to them. They are relational. We are like a human offering to cut the human-made nets that are binding the flippers and fins of ocean creatures.
There are two more things that come with apologies that make them work. The first is that they should be accompanied by efforts to change problematic behaviour or put right harm done. Without work, the words of an apology are often empty. The second, which might be the scary part, is accepting that there will be consequences to what we have done which we might not like.
When Jacob finally chose to put things right with Esau, he sent hundreds of animals ahead of him as gifts, in contrition and as a demonstration of his good intentions. They were given from the blessings that God had given Jacob – an effort to return to Esau what should have been his birthright. Jacob sought to make amends for what he had done to his brother. But he was so frightened of what he was going to face. Lying alone, wrestling with the angel of the Lord, he arose limping but the victor to do what he knew he had to. In our reading, we heard how he kept the women and children behind him, fearing the potential consequences for him.
And we saw how Esau struggled at first to accept Jacob’s efforts at apology, wanting to sweep it all under the carpet; but it was important that he accept it, and that Jacob should be allowed to do something to put things right. We know the power we have in relationship to heal and relieve someone when we accept their apology and forgive them.
So, apologise when you have caused harm and wish to repair the relationship. Reach out to the hurt party, acknowledging how you have hurt them. Attempt to make amends. Recognise the consequences. Say it like you mean it. This is one of the tools we have for building the kingdom; it is a sword beaten into a ploughshare.