Last Sunday my small group used the story of Zaccheus to launch a discussion about what makes for a great apology. We know it when we see one and we definitely know when someone’s “I’m sorry” falls far short. But what are the things that make an apology meaningful? Here are some phrases I suggested we might hear in a great apology (order intended).
1. I hurt you by _________________ (with the offense(s) named in detail).
2. I am so sorry and I seek your forgiveness.
3. Please tell me how my actions impacted you and others.
4. What can I do to relieve your pain? How can I make it right?
5. I will work to avoid this kind of problem again.
6. Will you forgive me?
7. Would you like me to explain how this came to be? (my thinking behind what I did)
The sacrificial nature of the 3rd and 4th items may be the hardest for us to do, especially if we think the other party either started it or sinned against us as well. #7 is an idea I got from a talk given by Everett Worthington (Virginia Commonweath marriage researcher). Separating the explanation from the apology keeps the explanation from looking like an excuse. I think we typically want to do that first when we think our motives have been wrongly portrayed.
Notice that the above list does not include equal air time for their sin against you. We should not require them to look at their own sin in the same time period (unless they show evidence of wanting to do so) since that may create the appearance of quid pro quo. These methods help us avoid brushing aside hurts that we think are over the top. Finally, notice that no time table is listed as to when we stop doing the above list. While it may not be kind to keep bringing up another’s sins, we do not have biblical evidence that we can claim a statute of limitations as to how long we will listen to reminders of our past sins. True apologies do not lead to shame when we discuss the incidents at later dates.