In this House: We Say Sorry

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 23, 2012

Proverbs 28:13; Matthew 5:23-24 In this House: We Say Sorry

Like You Mean It
It’s a familiar scenario to most parents: Your kids are out in the backyard playing in the sandbox. The older one has a toy the younger one wants. A dispute breaks out. There’s a tug of war with the desired toy. The older one wins, and turns back to play. The younger one, in a fit of anger, takes a handful of sand and throws it at the other.

Now there is crying. The older one runs to you for help. You saw most of it, so you know who is at fault. You pull the younger child aside and deliver a stern lecture. Then you march the youngster over to the older sibling and you say: “Apologize.”

You know what comes next. Defiance flashes in those little eyes. The lower lip sticks out in a pout. Little fingers curl into tiny fists. And the little one says nothing.

So you say again, “Say you’re sorry.” Little feet stomping on the ground. The little body squirms to get away. A defiant shake of the head.

“In this family we do NOT throw sand at one another. Apologize.” Finally, as you increase your grip on the shoulder, the little one mumbles: “I’m sorry.”

And you all know this part…then you say: “That isn’t good enough. Say it…” How? “Like you mean it.” Say it like you mean it.

For Lack of an Apology
We’re in a series on family called “In this House: Grace.” It’s a series about how we can apply the principles of grace in our homes. And this week’s title is: “In this House: We Say Sorry.” Today is about apologizing. For our families to be strong we need to be able to apologize well when we make a mistake.

This is such an important part of family life. At the last church I pastored I had an elderly couple with 3 grown children. I don’t know all the details, but several years earlier a dispute broke out between dad and the oldest son. I think it had something to do with land rents. But dad and son stopped talking to each other, and the younger kids took dad’s side and stopped talking to their older brother.

I conducted the funerals for both mom and dad. The oldest son didn’t even come to his mother’s funeral because he didn’t want to be in the same room as dad. He came to his father’s funeral, but wouldn’t talk to his siblings. It was the strangest things. The oldest son sitting in one corner of the front pew, the other siblings in the other corner of the same pew, and an invisible wall of silence between them. It was awkward to say the least. A family wrecked, and all for the lack of an apology.

Fork in the Road
There’s a scripture passage that talks about the importance of apology. It’s Proverbs 28:13:

He who conceals his sins does not prosper,
But whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

Proverbs are kind of like forks in the road. So many of the individual Proverbs give two choices: the way of the wise, and the way of the foolish. The way that leads to life and blessing and success; or the way that leads to death and cursing and destitution.

So many of the Proverbs come at us this way. You have a choice. It’s a Y in the road. Choose this way and it will go well for you. Choose that way and it will go badly.

And this Proverb works the same way. When it comes to sin—the mistakes and wrongdoing and hurtful things we do—we have two choices: we can conceal it or we can confess it. We can choose the path of foolishness, or we can choose the path of wisdom.

So let’s consider those two options. First, the option of concealing. When we sin, we can cover it up. We can try to make it look like we never do anything wrong. In the context of interpersonal relationships—especially with our families—we can never admit to making a mistake. Never say “I’m sorry.” Never take responsibility for our actions.

And the way of concealment—the verse says—does not lead to prosperity. I take that to mean that eventually your sins are going to be found out. The chickens will come home to roost, as the saying goes. And when that happens—if you’ve been covering up—it’s not going to go well. We have seen this on the national stage when the misdeeds of politicians have become public. They fall quickly.

And, of course, even if your sins are never revealed in this life, God sees them, and we will answer to Him. Jesus forgives sin, but He only forgives sin we hand over to Him. If we try to cover up our sin His Word has no place in our lives. (I John 1:9-10).

More than that—and, again, on the interpersonal level—I take this verse to mean that if you never own up to your failings, people aren’t going to like you. If you never admit to being wrong, people are going to find you arrogant and pompous and unpleasant to be around. And you’re not going to prosper. In business. And also in your relationships. In your marriage and in your family, if you are always acting as though you don’t sin, you are not going to prosper.

So, the other path, the recommended path, would be the path of confession. To own up to your sins, to admit your mistakes, and to seek forgiveness is the way of wisdom. When we do that, the Proverb says, we receive mercy.

That’s true with God. The Scripture says that when we confess our sins God is faithful and just—through the work of Jesus on the cross—to forgive us (I John 1:9).

And also, it tends to be true in our relationships. Just because you apologize does not obligate the person you wronged to forgive you; but as a general rule when we sincerely apologize people are happy to show mercy. And that’s why this is such an important part of family relationships. If we want our families to be strong we have to learn to say: “I’m sorry.”

If Your Brother Has Something Against You
There’s another passage I want to share with you. It’s from the Sermon on the Mount, a part of Jesus’ teaching on life in the Kingdom. Matthew 5:23-24:

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

This passage struck me—especially since we are about to embark on a capital campaign—because of what it says about the connection between our giving and our relationships. I’ll put it like this: Reconciliation must precede donation. Reconciliation must precede donation.

You see, Jesus is talking about bringing your gift to the altar. Performing an act of worship by giving financially to the temple. A good thing. A way of thanking God and making yourself available to His service. But Jesus says if you have a fractured relationship—if there’s a cloud hanging in the air between you and someone close to you—then before you give your gift you should go and make that situation right.

So there is a sense in which Jesus is saying that fractured relationships can cancel out our acts of worship. That’s why I say reconciliation must precede donation. Deal with the issues that separate you from your friends and family before you present yourself to God. Clear the air. Talk about the elephant in the room. If you want your gift to mean something to God, fix your relationships first.

And notice, Jesus says: “If your brother has something against you.” That’s why this passage has to do with apology. Jesus is talking about situations where you have the responsibility—where your sin is the problem or at least contributes to the problem—where you should be taking the initiative to set things right. And that means apology.

So I think it is interesting that we are talking about apology just a few weeks before we ask people to make a pledge for our campaign. Clearly, our relationships are important to God. And if you have fractured relationships, especially in your family, God’s desire for you—as much as it depends on you (Rom. 12:18)—is to go and make that right. All of us, before we pledge to the church—should be spending time in prayer to determine if there are people we should be apologizing to and reconciling with.

So, you make a mistake. You hurt some people. Now you stand at a fork in the road. You can choose the path of concealment. You can never say sorry and people will dismiss you as arrogant and your relationships will suffer and God will not accept your offerings. Or you can choose the path of confession. Say “I’m sorry” and you will find mercy and you will be able to worship with a clean conscience.

The Seven A’s of Apology
So how do we apologize well? How do we “say it like we mean it?” With these scriptures laying the foundation for why saying “I’m sorry” is important, I’d like to spend the rest of our time looking at what makes for a good apology. I hope this will be extremely practical, something that we can all begin putting into practice immediately. It’s called The Seven A’s of Apology, and comes from an excellent book called The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. Seven guidelines for a good apology.

First, a good apology will address everyone involved. As a general rule you should say sorry to everyone who has been directly affected by your wrongdoing.

Of course, this includes God, as every sin is a sin first and foremost against Him. Many of our sins are sins of the heart and sins of the mind. If we have had a jealous thought or a lustful thought about another person, that offends God and we should confess to Him. If you’ve had those kinds of thoughts about another person and haven’t acted on them it is unnecessary—and in some cases unwise—to tell them about it.

But if your sin involves actions that hurt another person, then you should take the initiative in seeking them out to apologize. And if your actions have affected several people, a particular and private apology to each person affected is appropriate.

For example, one of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is making amends. It involves making a detailed and ruthless list of everyone who was affected by a person’s drinking and finding an appropriate way to apologize. In the same way, it is sometimes necessary for a father to apologize to each member of the family for an outburst of anger or for a teenager to apologize to parents and siblings for actions that affect everyone.

Second guideline. Avoid words like “if, but and maybe.” Making an apology is not the same as making excuses. In fact, if you find yourself making a lot of excuses for why you behaved the way you did or if you are trying to defend yourself, then you are not really apologizing—no matter how many times you use the words “I’m sorry.”

So, for example, these statements aren’t really apologies:
• I’m sorry I yelled, but your cooking is so bad I couldn’t take it anymore.
• Maybe I shouldn’t have shot your dog, but you should have tied him up better.
• If I did anything to offend you while I was on the Jerry Springer show, I sincerely apologize.

“If” and “maybe” and words like that are bad because they imply that the person apologizing isn’t really sure he or she did anything wrong. When you say “If I’ve done anything to upset you” you’re basically saying: “I don’t really think I did anything wrong, but just to get you off my back I’ll apologize.”

The word “but” is bad in apologies because it has an almost magical ability to cancel out everything that comes before it. So statements like: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but you really hurt me first” or “I know I was wrong, but so were you” make it sound an awful lot like we believe the second part of the statement—the excuse—more than the first part of the statement—the “I’m sorry.”

Third, Admit Specifically. A good apology means specifically naming the actions and attitudes that were wrong and taking responsibility for them.

Ken Sande says: “Specific admissions help convince others that you are honestly facing up to what you have done, which makes it easier for them to forgive you. In addition, being specific will help you identify clearly the behavior you need to change.” (p. 112)

“I’m sorry we fought last night” is not nearly as good an apology as saying “I’m sorry I was short-tempered and didn’t take time to listen to your side of the story before I blew up.”

Also, we’ve all heard or used apologies that go like this: “I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way.” There’s that dreaded word “if”. And the problem here is that it shifts responsibility onto the person who was hurt. It’s a way of saying: “I was only kidding, I didn’t mean anything, but since you are apparently such a delicate flower and completely overreacted, I’ll apologize.” That is not owning your actions and is probably going to hurt the situation more than it will help.

Better to say something like this: “I was only kidding, but I can see how that crack about your mother was way over the line. My mouth gets me in trouble sometimes. From now on I’ll think before I speak.”

Fourth. Good apologies acknowledge the hurt. If you want people to see that you are sincere in your apology, then you need to demonstrate an awareness of how your actions have hurt them. Instead of just saying: “I’m sorry I was late” say something like “I’m sorry I wasted your time. I’m sure it must have been frustrating not knowing where I was or when I would get here.” When we offend someone, they are feeling pain and they want some evidence that we know how much we have hurt them.

It may be helpful to think in terms of regret and remorse. Regret is when we feel bad about the negative effects our actions have had on us. I made a mistake, I got caught, and now I regret it. Regret sounds like this: “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

But remorse takes it a step further. Remorse means we feel bad because we’ve made someone else feel bad. It means feeling sorrow for the sorrow we’ve caused. That’s what the word “sorry” implies. Remorse sounds something like this: “I wish I hadn’t done that because I see how much it hurt you, and because you are hurting I’m hurting too.”

A good apology acknowledges the hurt that has been caused.

Fifth. Accept the consequences. When apologizing, it is a good idea to explicitly accept the consequences of your actions. The person you are apologizing to might doubt the sincerity of your apology if it looks like you are merely trying to get out of your responsibilities.

Thus, a teen-ager who has broken curfew might say something like: “I’m sorry I was late. I understand that you will probably ground me now, and I deserve it.” A spouse who has been unfaithful will understand a subsequent lack of trust and will make cell phone and email and Facebook readily accessible to their spouse.

Moreover, if there is any way to make up for the wrong actions, a sincerely repentant person will readily take on those responsibilities. If money has been lost, a sincere apology means repaying it. If false information has been spread, a sincere apology means calling up each person who heard the lie and setting the story straight. If tasks have been left undone, a sincere apology means finishing them and then doing extra.

The harder we work to make restitution and repair any damage we have caused, the easier it will be for others to believe we are truly sorry and be reconciled to us.

Sixth guideline: Alter Your Behavior. For some people, it never feels like an apology has been given until they see some evidence that the person is truly making efforts to not make the same mistake again. Some people can say “I’m sorry” over and over and over again; but if they keep repeating the same behavior, it starts to feel pretty insincere.

Altering your behavior involves three steps. Explain your intention to change, make a plan to change, and then follow through. So, for example, if a father is short-tempered with his children, as a part of his apology he might explain his intention to take a walk around the block each time he begins to feel annoyed. If a wife is often critical of her husband as soon as he gets home from work, she might make a plan to always make sure the first thing she says when she sees him is something positive.

Nobody wants to forgive somebody when they feel the pattern is just going to repeat itself. So if you are truly sorry, express your plans to alter your behavior.

And then, seventh, ask for forgiveness and allow time. A true apology recognizes that the final step is not in our hands, but in the hands of the person we have offended. All we can do is humbly ask for forgiveness and give them space to make a decision.

Asking for forgiveness is important, because it is a way of showing that the relationship is important to you and you want to see it fully restored. If you don’t care about the relationship then you might offer a token apology, but it really doesn’t matter to you one way or another if they forgive you. But when you want to see the relationship continue and grow stronger, then it is important to ask to be forgiven.

For some people, though, this can be the hardest part of an apology. For one thing, it means fully admitting that you have done something wrong. Some of us find it easy to say the word “sorry” but fall short of adding “will you forgive me?” because we know as soon as we say those words, we are completely admitting that we are to blame.

Also, asking forgiveness is hard because it puts the future of the relationship totally in the hands of the offended person. Once you have made your apology and asked forgiveness, there is nothing left for you to do. You’ve put things in their hands. You cannot make that decision for them and, just because you’ve apologized, that doesn’t obligate them to forgive you. It wouldn’t be right for you to pressure them or give them a hard time if they are finding forgiveness hard to come by. All you can do is make sure you’ve covered all the aspects of apology, give them space, and allow time.

The Prodigal
So there are seven guidelines for a good apology. This is how to “say it like you mean it:”
Address Everyone Involved
Avoid Words like “If”, “Maybe” and “But”
Admit Specifically
Acknowledge the Hurt
Accept the Consequences
Alter your Behavior
Ask Forgiveness and Allow Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Prodigal Son this week. I’ve been thinking about how important the apology is in that story.

And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: I think the Prodigal knew he had blown it a long time before he ever ended up in that pig pen.

Oh, I’m sure right after he told his dad he wanted the money more than he wanted a father he felt pretty good. He was living the high life and it was pretty exciting. But after a while, when he kept waking up hung over and he started to see the clues that his friends were only using him for the money, I bet he started to realize he’d made a mistake.

But still, he chose the path of concealment. His pride wouldn’t allow him to admit he was wrong. He wasn’t willing, yet, to come back to his father and apologize.

And so, he kept on the path he was walking. Kept squandering his money and living wild. Trying to convince himself this was what he wanted.

Until, finally, he hit rock bottom. He wakes up one morning covered in filth and competing with hogs for food. And that’s when he decides to change paths. He decides to confess. Here’s what he determines to say to his father:

Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.

It’s a great apology. It covers all the bases. He addresses the right people. He makes no excuses. He is specific about what he has done wrong and acknowledges the pain it caused. He accepts the consequences of his actions and, by implication, shows he has plans to change. He puts the whole future of the relationship in his father’s hands.

And the great thing about that story, of course, is once he chooses this new path—before he even gets the words of apology out of his mouth—his father is right there at the end of the driveway to greet him and shower him with mercy.

Let’s all become good at apology.