by Melissa Parkhouse
Have you ever been hurt by someone and when they apologized to you, it felt sort of flat and empty? And the “I’m sorry” simply wasn’t enough for you? There are really good reasons why that is!
How many times have you heard (or used) the following phrases? “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “I didn’t mean to ________.” “I could have done a better job.”
On the surface, they look like an apology, but they miss the mark because of these key points: they are surface level and they do not value the experience of the other person. The words “I am sorry” do not carry weight unless it is paired with a heartfelt confession of wrongdoing.
Why is this important? Because as believers we are called to live in the light! Our sin nature wants to hide things, minimize personal harm and avoid looking at the ugly things in our lives. Confession and repentance (fancy Christian words for apology) are critical aspects of our walk with Jesus and with others! Confession, the acknowledgement of sin, and repentance, the turning away from the behaviors and attitudes that caused the issue, are what allow us to walk in freedom.
Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Conflict has outlined 7 crucial steps in creating an effective apology. He calls them “The Seven A’s of Confession.”
Step 1: Address Everyone Involved
An effective apology will not try to hide or minimize the damage caused. If your actions caused hurt, pain or misunderstanding to more than one person, you will need to go through all of these steps with each person involved.
Step 2: Avoid using the words: “If, but and maybe”
Why those words in particular? Because they are always attached to excuses, justification, or minimizing.
“If you hadn’t done that thing, then I wouldn’t have responded the way I did.”
“But you did this…”
“I guess maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
Do any of these sound convincing to you? I sure hope not! The problem with using excuses or justifying ourselves is that we are trying to avoid blame. Yes, the other person may have had something to do with the issue, but that’s not the point! You are apologizing because you value the relationship more than being right.
Step 3: Admit Specifically
Ok now we’re getting to some nitty-gritty, ugly, heart-stuff. When we admit specifically we are naming and owning the attitudes and actions that caused harm to the person.
Pause and think about it: Are you starting to see a trend here? In order to apologize effectively you are going to need real humility and spend some time searching your heart beforehand. A genuine apology triggers genuine forgiveness and reconciliation (which are fancy ways of saying the authentic restoring of relationships). If you want real restoration in your relationships, you are definitely going to need Jesus to help you. Ask Him to show you the ugly places in your heart that caused the problem, repent and ask Him to heal you. You can even use these 7 A’s of Confession in talking to the Lord about things you want to change in your life!
Ok, back to admitting specifically. I’ve noticed in my own life that the real reason I don’t want to admit specifically what I did wrong is because I don’t like looking at these things about myself and I am embarrassed by them. When I bravely choose to own exactly what I did wrong and shed light on those dark places in my heart, I am opening a door to my own life change, and a door for healing in the relationship. It’s painful, but it’s worth it.
Step 4: Acknowledge the Hurt
This step walks hand in hand with admitting specifically what you did wrong. Take the time to express sorrow for hurting the other person. If you have taken the time before the Lord to look at the attitudes and behaviors that hurt someone, you will have also had time to consider what that felt like to the other person. Talk about it!
Whew! We made it through the first four steps. If you have made it this far in your apology building, well done! We’re done right? We can just ask for forgiveness and call it good right? Nope! There are two more important steps before we can get to asking for forgiveness.
Step 5: Accept the Consequences
Pause for a moment and consider this: Do we apologize because we want right relationship? Or do we apologize because we want to avoid the consequences of our actions? Real repentance doesn’t avoid consequences.
And the hardest part of this step, is many times, you don’t get to decide the consequences. The person who you hurt might want to set up boundaries that change the dynamic of the relationship, or you may need to pay to cover the cost of or replace a damaged item. If you are willing to do some heart work before hand, you can keep this in mind, “This relationship matters to me, so I am willing to do whatever it takes to make it right.”
Step 6: Alter Your Behavior
An apology is empty unless it is accompanied by authentic life change. Do you have a plan in place for how you are going to modify your behavior? Share this with the person you caused harm to!
Step 7: Ask for Forgiveness
Genuine apology is a very vulnerable experience. You bring your heart attitudes and actions before God and before another person, repent specifically and acknowledge the damage. Once you’ve done that, you may ask one thing: Will you forgive me?
Why this is important: Sometimes when we apologize we expect for other people to simply accept are apology and be ok with it. Unfortunately, that is an unfair expectation. If we have truly acknowledged the hurt we caused to someone, then we need to give them space and time to process that for themselves. We cannot demand an instant restoration of relationship. Out of humility, we can ask for forgiveness and, if it’s not offered right away, we can wait patiently, trusting that God will help heal their hearts as well.
An apology is not a say-it-once-and-it’s-over process, it’s a first step in a journey toward healing. But, if you will take the time and make sure that your apology contains these seven ingredients to an effective apology, you might be surprised by the outcome!