On Apology…

I’ve been blogging (with varied, unimpressive levels of consistency) for a few years now, and to “call a spade a spade,” I don’t see a ton of traffic. On a good day with the wind behind me, my mom, my wife, and (according to Google Analytics) a random person in Russia read my posts.  Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but let’s be honest, Ann Voskamp and I have two vastly different levels of readership.

And that’s totally okay; I’m nobody all that special or enlightened, so I don’t have any delusions that I’m pumping out revelations  everybody wants to (or needs to) spend their time reading.  I hope I have some helpful thoughts for others, but I’m writing mainly for myself most of the time anyhow.  I process  and seek to understand my own thoughts by writing them down, so the main beneficiary of my own writing is typically, well…me.

Therefore, a few months back, when one of my posts started being described as “viral,” it came as quite the shock.  To crack 100 page views had always been a pretty significant accomplishment before, but this particular post got significant traffic, to say the least.  To demonstrate, my blog stats indicate that my second most popular post has 629 views…my most popular has well over 100,000. I’m not too unsure that kind of disparity doesn’t grant me some one-hit-wonder status akin to that of Chumbawumba and Dexy’s Midnight Runners (yes, I’m aware that you’ll now be humming the chorus of “Tubthumping” or “Come on Eilieen” as you finish reading).

Admittedly, I’m not losing any sleep over the lack of audience my blog normally has.  If only my close friends and family read my ramblings, the sun will still rise, and its rising will still always be preceded by my son waking me up to ask if he can watch cartoons.  Still, I have wondered since that post’s publishing, why did so many people care about that post?  Why did so many people pass it along via social media?  Why did numerous people want to publish it on websites and in print media?  Why did so many people email me and open up to me about their checkered history with the church?

To be sure, it had very little to do with who I am.  I’m just a blatantly average dude with more questions than answers, more losses than wins, and more beard than brains.  So what, then was the attraction?

The only answer I can come up with is that the content of that post represented something people don’t see enough of these days, and something I (to my own shame) am only now learning how to put into practice…the art of apology.

At the risk of sounding being accused of a #humblebrag, I think my post, originally intended for a very specific audience of beloved friends to whom I owed apology, resonated with so many because of the fact that honest, heartfelt, unqualified apology just isn’t something we’re very good at or comfortable with these days.  And when I say apology, understand that I don’t mean it in the Greek sense, roughly translated to “a defense.”  No, I mean an apology that lays bare the grief one’s error has caused, humbly begs forgiveness, and readily desires to make restitution as necessary. I think all of us are  very prone (and well-practiced) in apology as derived from the Greek; it’s in our nature to defend (fight or flight, eh?) ourselves when confronted with our faults and the havoc they’ve wrought.  The kind of apology that we are called to in Matthew 5:23-24 or the kind of active apology demonstrated when Zacchaeus finally saw the weight of his sin overcome by the grace extended to him by Jesus Christ…I don’t know that we’re as good at that.

All of this has caused me to really examine what I believe about apologies, and not surprisingly, has pressed me into more situations where I must put into practice what I’ve been learning, regardless of how comfortable I am with doing so.  Here, in a raw, off-the-cuff list are some of these lessons.

Apologies Aren’t Just For Active Wrongs

Normally, when we’ve actively wronged someone, it is apparent.  If I lie to, steal from, or act out against someone, I’m  not normally prone to denial, and I most often find myself under a compulsion to right the clear and obvious sin against that person.  What we aren’t normally on guard against are the more insidious wrongs, those we make passively as we simply go about our daily lives.  Such wrongs are normally done in ignorance, and we are often quick to claim ignorance as defense, but the damage caused is no less real and no less sinful.  There are many ways this can play itself out, but in my own life, I’ve seen it occur in this manner.  I’m a pleaser, and I want to say yes to everyone.  This comes from both a pure desire to help others, and also a sad fear of being disliked (another post for another day, I suppose).  Helping others and volunteering my time to do so is an honorable thing; however, over the last few years, I’ve realized that in promising my time and services out to everyone, I’ve often failed to be helpful to someone pretty important…who sleeps next to me…and birthed our three kids…and has cleaned up nearly every nasty thing that can be evacuated from the human body since those kids arrived.  To make a long story short, in my pursuit of being Mr. Everything to everyone I knew, I had passively wounded my wife, leaving her alone to take care of our home.  Did she value my desire to help others? Absolutely!  Did I owe my wife a sincere and honest apology for not counting her among the “others” I needed to help?  Ab…so…lutely! Sadly, though I could see the strain my neglect was putting on her, I continued on adding to my plate of responsibilities, befuddled as to why she’d question my involvement with so many worthwhile (many even church-related) endeavors.  And I never would have confronted this truth and apologized had she not had the love and courage to confront me with an error I didn’t even know I was making.  As this example suggests, we often don’t even know the passive wrongs we are committing against those around us, but the damage they cause is real, and such damage mandates sincere, repentant apology.

Apologies Are More Than Simple Admissions of Error

As reticent as people often are to even admit mistakes, those that are bold enough to acknowledge a faux pas don’t always feel constrained to translate that acknowledgement into a true apology. Perhaps this is because we aren’t fully aware there is even a difference between the two.  But how ridiculous would it be if, when confronted with our own sinful errors against our brothers and sisters in Christ, we made it a policy to simply say, “Yep. Totally whiffed on that one.” While recognition of our mistakes is the beginning of the process, perhaps we need to take a view of apology that does not regard it as a momentary event, but rather a process which begins at recognition, involves us truly grieving what our actions have wrought, creates within us a desire for gospel reconciliation, drives us to apology, and compels us to change and right our wrongs in as much as we possibly can. This is scary, I know.  This means that an apology could take five minutes…or a lifetime.  There is no timetable when apologies are elevated beyond simple recognition of error, but our commitment to the process is a demonstration to the offended that their hurts are real and that we will prioritize reconciliation and healing, readily willing to humble ourselves to achieve those aims.

Apologies Followed by “But” Are Rarely True Apologies

This one is hard for me, admittedly.  It’s a simple conjunction, yet it has the power to completely derail and undermine an apology.  I’ve caught myself on countless occasions telling people, “Well, I’m sorry, but…”. Normally, when I use the word “but,” I’m probably not actually sorry at all.  In such moments, I probably want the offended party to believe I’m sorry so that I can quickly segue into my defense or my counter-accusations that will totally tip the balance of power in my favor.  What I miss too often is that the word “but”communicates to the offended that I have some enlightenment they do not, that their hurt and offense is ill-conceived or misinformed and that if they could only see that, then they wouldn’t be hurt. The toughest part is that sometimes people are genuinely hurt because they actually are misinformed. However, what I’ve typically failed to recognize is that even if the causes of the hurt are false, the hurt itself is always very, very real.  To jump straight to debating the causes of one’s pain ignores the most pertinent issue, their pain.  Even if I do not feel someone is justified in being hurt, shouldn’t I grieve the fact that they are and that I may have been a part of it?  I often wonder if it wouldn’t be better to accept a policy of replacing “but” with “and.” Might my apology hold more weight if instead of saying, “I’m sorry, but you’re not seeing the big picture,” I said, “I’m sorry for your pain, and I want nothing more than for our relationship to be restored”?

Apologies Should Avoid Subtext and Excuse

Before Kelly and I were married, much more of our communication had to be done by phone. I’m a relational guy who loves to talk with people, but the phone has never been a mode of communication I enjoy all that much.  In communication, I greatly prefer face-to-face communication that has context, gesture, and physicality to communication that is primarily auditory. I’m growing into phone communication in my old age, mainly thanks to something I learned in my phone communications with Kelly in our dating relationship, and even the early years of our marriage.  Often, I’d be overly direct or overly distant with her in an attempt to shorten the amount of time we spent on the phone (I now cringe as I type that).  One of the defensive “apologies” I’d often throw at her was, “I’m sorry; I just don’t like talking on the phone.” What I didn’t realize then is that such a statement has a subtext that’s far more clear on the receiving end than that of the sender. The subtext of that statement is: “The phone is a hurdle I’m not willing to jump for the sake of this relationship.” Though this is only one example of how we sometimes chase our apologies with excuses to soften the blow, it should press us to look at our own excuses and ask ourselves, “What is the unintended (though probably validly interpreted) subtext of what I’m saying as I apologize?”

Apologies Must Be Accompanied By Change

As a parent, I see this as true on a consistent basis. I have two young boys, and at the tender ages of 6 and 7, it appears that they’re already training for a career in mixed martial arts.  In their rough and tumble play, it is inevitable that one will deliver an elbow to the face or knock the other into something, so we spend a lot of time saying “I’m sorry.”  It’s not abnormal for the sorry to be followed by a repeat offense and another “sorry.” Repeat that cycle 3 to 30 more times in a span of a few hours, and you have an average Monday night at the Love casa.  The lack of change in our sons’ behaviors indicate that they’re more sorry about the fact that dad gets called in as the referee than that they’ve legitimately hurt one another or are acting in a way that could be dangerous and destructive. I wish this were just a tendency of six and seven-year-olds.  In the story of Zacchaeus, it is not enough for the tax collector to recognize how he’d taken advantage of his countrymen and ask forgiveness. His encounter with Jesus is so real that he is transformed into a new man.  May the radical change seen wrought in the heart of Zacchaeus be the radical change that accompanies our apologies to one another.

Apologies Support Apologetics

I don’t want anyone to misconstrue this; we are, as believers and followers of Christ, called to defend our faith, to offer an “apologia” for the hope that is within us.  Still, I don’t know that the unbelieving world should be expected to care about our logical, well-crafted defense of the rationality of faith if it is perceived that we are generally unable to admit where we’ve erred, grieve the consequences, beg forgiveness, change accordingly, and make right what is within our power to make right.  I have no idea where the old saying “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” came from, but as corny as it sounds, it’s true.  If I don’t care deeply about people, to the point that I’ll risk my reputation by openly repenting of hurts I’ve caused (intentionally or unintentionally), it’s a bit much to ask them to hear me out on the rational defense of my faith.

Apologies Are Gospel Proclamations of Trust in God’s Restorative Mission

Ultimately, our willingness to admit error and to pursue reconciliation with humility will not always be received the way we want it to.  There are some apologies that will never be accepted; this is a reality of living in a fallen world. Some hurts won’t heal this side of heaven, and some relationships won’t be mended until glory.  This is tough to accept, especially for highly relational people like me who find it hard to live with interpersonal strife.  However, our willingness to humble ourselves, own our own mistakes, and humbly seek restoration regardless of whether or not our offer is received well or not demonstrates a trust that the Holy Spirit can heal what we cannot.  Especially when it is easier to cut a relational tie, chalk up the relational friction to lessons learned, and walk away, to pursue reconciliation as we are urged by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount shows that we honestly believe God is in the business of making all things new and reconciling all things unto himself, even our relationships with one another.

As I indicated earlier, I’m a man with more questions than answers, and what I’ve learned I’ve often learned the hard way.  I’m sure that in my past, there are more people deserving of my apologies than I’m even aware of.  I’ve wasted many opportunities and lost contact with many such folks along the way, and in those cases, I must solely rest on the grace of God given to me in the cross of Christ.  However, I’m thankful that even at this stage of the game, God has been gracious enough to teach me–and will undoubtedly continue to teach me–that his grace does not excuse me from, but should rather compel me to make every effort to, as far as it depends on me, live at peace with all men, a commission which will, more often than I’d probably like, mean putting pride aside and seeking to offer true and sincere apologies.

*Guy in Russia, I appreciate you reading this!

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