The Sacred Art of Apologizing

by Travis Bookout

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“True love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Hopefully, you’ve heard or read something about the absurdity of that sentiment. True love actually means quite the opposite.  In order for any loving relationship to work, the phrase “I’m sorry” should probably be a fairly common part of it. In fact, that’s probably not enough. I’d say true love means having to say much more than “I’m sorry.”

There are times I’ve playfully given fake apologies. My wife can attest to this. If there were some minor infraction that she wasn’t reaaallly upset about, I may say something like, “You know, I owe you an apology.” And then leave it right there. Which is a way of saying, “I should apologize” buuuuut I’m not actually going to. It’s my clever little way to get around apologizing. And oddly, Lauren is never as amused as she should be.

But there are much more serious times when people try to get by with “fake apologies.” What I mean by a “fake apology” is something like this: “I’m sorry you got upset.” Think about that. In that statement there is no remorse for anything I have done. I’m sorry only for what You have done, namely, getting upset. Basically, that’s a way of saying, “I wish you were different.”

Or, consider an apology that sounds a bit like this, “Look, I’m sorry, but you were the one who…” Any apology that serves only as the introduction to a polemic about how I’m not really sorry and it’s your fault, probably shouldn’t ever be uttered. Save some time and just skip the customary apology and get right into the argument. That’s really all you’re wanting anyway. You want to argue and make your point, but still be able to say, “Hey, I apologized!”

Apologizing is an essential part of any relationship, but it must be done well. It must be done sincerely and it must lead to a change in behavior. The only way that happens is with a serious dose of humility. I’ve had to apologize several times in my life. As a minister I have made mistakes. As a husband I have made mistakes. As a friend, as a brother, as a son, I’ve made mistakes. There are times I’ve been thoughtless. Times when I focused on my own life or family or work or school and it never even occurred to me that I was hurting someone else. And I doubt I’m alone in this.

There are times I’ve needed to apologize. If you ever find yourself with that need, let me make a few suggestions.

First, do not defend yourself. Even if you do have legitimate excuses, do not make them. Keep them to yourself. Most of the time, people do not want to hear them. They want to hear remorse. This takes biting the tongue and swallowing your pride. But give them what they deserve; a simple and humble apology.

Second, be sincere about it. This one is harder because if you’re not really sorry, how do you just conjure up fake sincerity? Fake sincerity isn’t even a thing. So how do you do this? The key is to consider the other person’s feelings. Don’t make it about yourself. Don’t think about the fact that they’re upset at you. Don’t think about your excuses. Don’t think about their failures. Think about the fact that they are hurting and at the very least, you didn’t do more to help. Scenarios don’t exist where you couldn’t have possibly done anything better. And most of the time, we could have done a whole lot better. Focus on their pain and on what you could have done. And sincerely apologize.

Third, try to make an active change. Apologies always deal with things in the past. You are sorry for something that has already occurred. You cannot change what has already occurred. But you can make sure you are more aware, more conscientious, more helpful in the future. You can be kinder, more selfless, and more like Jesus. That’s a goal we can all always strive for. Since you can’t change the past, that’s really all you can do. But it’s essential.

Will this always repair the damage? Not always. And that’s a tragedy. But make sure you take it seriously and do all that you can. Don’t give up if healing takes time. Make sure that any hard feelings are not lingering because of you. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).