The Gift of Apology
February is here! The month of cards, chocolates, and flowers as husbands talk themselves into thinking that’s all the gift a wife could ever want. Wives play the guessing game, wondering if Valentine’s Day may be more meaningful this year. In this short article, let me share with you a true love kind of gift that keeps giving throughout the year…in a positive way!
Let me explain what I mean. My wife and I have five children, and several of them now have children of their own. We are blessed to be able to give bright lights and loud-noise gifts to our grandchildren! And of course, those gifts need batteries. We would be terrible grandparents if we gave a gift and didn’t include the power source! Yet, when it comes to the gift of apology, too many of us have become comfortable with giving a gift that doesn’t include the power source.
Understanding the role of apology in the act of forgiveness is essential for every relationship. Apologies are not a biblical construct. Confession is. Many offer an apology thinking they have confessed, and the issue has been properly dealt with. Some would even say forgiveness is then obligated to be granted. I believe this is why so many relationships are less-than-thriving and emotionally stuck. I know I’ve been there and done that. We need a better understanding of apology in order to move beyond “I’m sorry.”
The concept of apology stems from Greek culture and refers to offering a defense. So, during the time of Jesus and the early church, an apology was an argument in defense, not an acknowledgment of harm or contrition. The definition and use of apology began to morph in the sixteenth century to refer to an attempt to make amends.1
This morphed concept of apology gained popular traction in the twentieth century, “Feeling sorry (or experiencing guilt) motivates a person to work to repair relationships that he or she may have damaged in some way. Apologizing is a kind of social behavior that is rooted in the emotional state of feeling sorry….”2 This idea moved an apology from the merely cognitive (thinking) realm to the feeling realm. Psychologists were all over this! For all of us reading this today, we grew up under this new understanding of apology.
So, if an apology is not a biblical construct, then is it important? Yes, but its importance is clarified within its context. An apology is not for the offended person. An apology is for the offender to recognize the need for and proceed with a full confession. We’re not offering an apology to garner forgiveness. We offer an apology to then offer a confession.
Confession is a precursor to the pursuit of reconciliation, not only a preferred precursor to forgiveness. The beauty of forgiveness is that the offended person can choose to forgive without the offender making an apology or confession. However, a confession must be presented for the reconciliation of a relationship to be complete. I know, you can put ten people in a room and get fifteen differing opinions on forgiving without an apology. That’s another article for another day. An apology is the first step in confessing personal wrongdoing. That’s the point of the apology, not reconciliation, restoration, or even forgiveness.
Your relationship with Jesus is the prerequisite to forgiveness. Confession is a prerequisite for repentance. Repentance is a prerequisite for reconciliation, which can lead to a restored relationship. An apology simply turns the knob that opens the door to confession.
Research shows an apology accomplishes several things, such as “…owning responsibility, acknowledging need for amends, inviting accountability…”3 but it does not accomplish forgiveness. The offended person is responsible for choosing forgiveness, which can be difficult when an apology is not present, appears to be lacking, or is not believed.
Can we forgive someone without an apology? Yes.
Can a confession be complete without an apology? No.
So, what is this gift of apology? You’ve likely given and received this gift many times and experienced the different emotions connected to it. This gift has the potential to help heal and honor people as we work through relational landmines. Until now, you’ve likely passed the gift on without its power source. Let’s change that today. The power is in confession.
For an apology to take effect, we must consider the offender and the offended. An apology acknowledges the need for the offender to step into confession. Apologies are not a manipulative way to get the offended to offer forgiveness, but for the offender to walk towards restoring the relationship through confession which leads to repentance. Repentance is a change of mind regarding words, thoughts, or actions. We have heard it taught, and many of us accurately teach, that repentance happens when we turn away from ourselves and toward God. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary puts it this way, “Repentance refers to a deeply seated and thorough turning from self to God… an experience in which God is recognized as the most important fact of one’s existence.”4 When we say, “I’m sorry,” we begin the process of confession. Too often, we stop at an apology, thinking we’ve done all that is needed to restore relationships. We say, “I’m sorry.” Great! Now, walk into confession with a challenging next step by saying something like, “I realize I hurt you when I (said/did) this. That was wrong, and I want to make it up to you by changing (this is about me). Will you forgive me?” We then produce the fruit of repentance. A good confession has a strong apology linked to empathy and connects to the heart of repentance.
This Valentines’ Day, and as future opportunities emerge, enjoy giving the gift of apology!
2 Trivers, R. L. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, p. 36.
3 Jeter, W. K., & Brannon, L. A. (2018). ‘I’ll Make It Up to You:’ Examining the Effect of Apologies on Forgiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(6), p. 598.
4 Brand C., Draper C. & England A. (2003). Holman illustrated bible dictionary. Holman Bible, p. 1327.
By Dr. Eric Willis
Positive Leadership Consultant, Author, Speaker
Dr. Willis will be leading two breakout sessions at our 2024 Conference on May 6 and 7.