Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Yesterday, I began publicly what can only be a long season of confession and I argued that many of us have spent our lives trying to figure out (read: justify) our behavior, rather than repent of it. For me, I know I have a lot of apologies to make. Starting with God, and then myself, and then to the many people who have in one way or another been the object of my sinful indulgence.

That begs the question - how does one even apologize? How do you say you're sorry, especially when years have passed and lives have grown apart and you don't even talk to half of these people any more.

I used to think (or hope) it was enough to get my life on track, to make positive changes and be a better woman. The hope is that when you run into someone from your past, someone you owe an apology to, you can explain the incredible growth and change you've experienced, hold your present life up as an example, and sort of shove all the negative former things under the rug because look! You made something of yourself. You're a better man. You're a better woman. You're "okay." So all that other stuff? Forget about it. No need to worry.

The subtext here is that you want the people you've hurt to feel better about you. You don't want pain to cloud their memory, so you build a better story and make sure they know about it, so that when they think of you, they think of who you are today. And they're kind of proud, right? 

Yes, and no. It's dismissive and bordering on arrogant to concoct such a scheme. Because it leaves open the question as to whether you understand what you've done, or if you even care. It is a second offense because it tramples on the wounded heart in front of you, the very one you're hoping to abate. You boldly declare, "I don't care what I've done - look at who I am!" when the aching heart of the wounded still weeps over what you've done. And now, weeps all the more because you don't even acknowledge it.

It's not enough to change your life. You still, as hard as it may be, have to say you're sorry. You have to apologize to people. Without reasons or excuses, you have to own your mistakes and the significant hurt they may have caused. You have to look people in the eye and say, "I know. And I'm sorry." It doesn't have to be more profound than that. Try to make it so, and you risk devolving into bigger stories, which aren't helpful. It may feel better to pull people onto your side, to share your justifications and help them see why you did the things you did, but that just means now both of you have to carry your justification. (See yesterday.) It's just a mess. Stick with a simple "I'm sorry." Acknowledge what you've done, acknowledge your role in the event, and repent.

There is, as always, a caveat here: be careful. There are people who have successfully stuffed your wounds into their closets and are quite content to leave them there. They are prepared to be cordial, even friendly with you. They are prepared to forgive. As long as you don't bring it up. There are people who are unaware of what you think you've done to them, and to apologize might open a can of worms. In short, only apologize if the situation still exists between you. (Not in that it is ongoing, but in that is ever-present.) If every time you see this person, the tension is tangible, apologize. If neither of you have mentioned it in 20 years, find another way.

It is not your right, it is not your place, it is not your prerogative, even under the best of intentions, to lay open another's wound. Even if you're trying to heal it. Even if you're trying to soothe it. You do not have the right to re-open the injury.

Then how do you begin the healing process? How do you apologize when to do so would be injurious to the other party? 

Here's a technique that I appreciate: wrap your apology in gratitude. Everybody loves to be thanked. The person you've injured was likely trying to do something good in your life at the very same moment. They thought they were working for you, only to be met by your resentment or rage or refusal or whatever it happened to be that you met them with at the time. Think back on the season of your life in which you sinned against this person - what were they trying to speak into you? If you think hard enough, you'll find it. And start from there. Start by telling them how you recognize what they were to you in that season, what they were trying to do for you, who they were trying to be for you. Figure out how that affects you today, and share that insight with them. Take them back to that time by focusing on their role. This does two things:

First, it begins your apology. It demonstrates that you recognize that time for what it was, or what it was supposed to be, or what it could have been. It shows that you were just as engaged in what was going on as they were, and that you recognize them being there. It shows that you understand what was going on and that you were active and present, and that further, you understand them in that moment and are appreciative for their love and participation. 

Second, it invites them to gently enter wounded space. Maybe they don't want to talk about it. Maybe if you'd opened with, "Hey, remember that time I ______" they'd have tuned you out. But now, you've opened the door with the focus on them, and that allows them to re-enter that time, too. If they harbor any pain or questions about your role, this frees them to bring that up, without requiring them to do so. And when they do, stick with this. "I know. I was wrong. I am sorry." And if they don't? Drop it. Simple as that.

This approach works even if they were wrong, too. You don't have any high moral ground if you sinned "in the right" because you still sinned! They don't stand on lesser ground if they sinned, too. Aren't you approaching the subject precisely because of your sin? It doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong. Maybe you're both wrong. Who cares? Go into an apology knowing that you were wrong, and don't expect to come out of it being right. 

I know. It's a lot to think about, and there's so much more I could say on this subject. But I think for now, I want to leave it at this. Although now that I think about it, I may have one final word on words for tomorrow... Stay tuned for that.

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