The Art of Apologizing

“Hold me now, it's hard for me to say I'm sorry”

-Chicago

Can we all agree that it's not easy to apologize? It takes a lot of humility to admit that you were wrong and then say you're sorry. Some people will go their whole life without offering a single apology to another person.

During pastoral counseling I have heard a few people tell me that their spouse, or their mother and father had never apologized to them even though they had done them great harm. That is a shocking. How could someone go through their whole marriage or all 18 years of raising a child and never admit that they messed up?

So, for those of you who acknowledge your imperfections to the ones closest to you, allow me to offer some guidance on apologizing. Here are four really important characteristics when it comes to saying you're sorry.

Apologies Should Be Unconditional

Has someone ever come to you with an apology that sounded like this?

“Hey, I'm sorry that I did that to you…but, you know what you did was also wrong.” That is called a conditional apology. In a sense the person is saying, “I will admit that I was wrong, as long as you admit you were wrong too.”

Friends, a conditional apology is no apology at all. A conditional apology is actually a subtle accusation. It's like a car thief saying, “I'm sorry that I stole your car, but after all, you were the one that left it unlocked.”

When you apologize to someone it's important that you completely admit to your portion of the wrongdoing. If there is some wrongdoing on the part of the other person then it is up to them to bring it up. Often, a true, humble, apology will do that.

Apologies Should Be Voluntary

When I was 8 years old I said some mean things about one of the kids who lived down the street. Somehow, he heard about it and before you know it his mom contacted my mom and an arrangement was made to meet.

Sitting in his living room, my mom said to me, “OK, Phillip, say you're sorry.” I mumbled a half-hearted apology. I'll never forget how his mother responded. She said, “You're not sorry, you're just saying ‘sorry' because your mom told you to.”

I was busted. Of course, as an 8-year old, the nuances of a good apology were unknown to me. Still, I missed a chance to truly makes amends.

In Matthew 5, Jesus 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.

(vs 23-24)

It's up to you, and no one else, to decide to say you're sorry. Take the initiative and make amends before you do anything else.

Apologies Take Practice

It's funny to think that apologizing is something that you can get better at doing, but it's true. There are a few reasons for this. First, it takes some time to get used to the feeling of being humbled. It's an uncomfortable place to be.

Secondly, you'll begin to realize that apologizing to another person is a soul-filling activity. It feels good to unburden yourself. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better it feels.

Apologize enough and you'll soon become an expert.

Additional Practical Advice

If at all possible, apologize in person. That's the best way to say you're sorry. Avoid texting (for sure) and email if you can. Sometimes it's not possible to meet face to face, or it may even be too painful. In situations like this it's a good idea to write a letter—not an email—a pen and paper letter.

Keep your apologies brief and get to the point quickly. Saying that you're sorry doesn't need to take a long time. If you over-explain your actions it could begin to sound like you're making excuses for your behavior.

If you're a believer in Jesus, every apology should be followed by a request to be forgiven. All Christians are all called to forgive each other. As a matter of fact, Christians don't really have a choice. We are mandated by the scriptures to forgive. In Ephesians Paul said that we are to “be kind to one another, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Jesus used even stronger language, saying that if we refuse to forgive each other on earth, God would not forgive us in Heaven (Matthew 6:15).


Let me know what you think. Do you have trouble apologizing? If so, why is it so difficult? Or, if you're a really good apologizer let us know what helps you.

6 thoughts on “The Art of Apologizing”

  1. I think over the years I have gotten better at apologizing. It’s still uncomfortable, but i have learned it’s the only way to have an honest relationship with someone. It’s never my intent to be hurtful, but sometimes we just are, we are imperfect human beings.

  2. I’m with Chicago on this one…apologizing is just hard sometimes. But hard doesn’t mean impossible, and hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Some of the best things I’ve done in my life have been incredibly hard (hello 3 children!)

    I love this point: “Saying that you’re sorry doesn’t need to take a long time.”

    Amen.

    Sometimes we get so wrapped up in justification or filling our own discomfort with words. The truth is you can do the job in two words: I’m sorry.

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