How Can And Should A Christian Apologize?
Updated: Mar 29, 2019
It’s hard for many to do, and even harder to do well.
I hate to mess up! Even worse, I hate to apologize. Am I unusual? I don’t think so. I recently asked a group of Christians how many believe an apology is the mark of a good Christian and a good leader. They were in almost unanimous agreement that it is.
Dale Carnegie wrote in his fabulous bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People: “When we are wrong—and that will be surprisingly often, if we are honest with ourselves—let’s admit our mistakes quickly and with enthusiasm. It is a lot more fun, under the circumstances, than trying to defend one’s self.”
To apologize is not a sign of weakness, bad character or bad leadership. It’s a sign of strength, good character and good leadership.
But how should we apologize? You can probably think of examples of poorly done apologies. Here’s how to do it right.
Here are seven steps to apologize, from a biblical Christian viewpoint:
1. State your wrong behavior and call it what it is.
Our inclination is to “cover-up” our wrongdoing. Many apologies never come until someone is caught red-handed. Then when caught, we often want to whitewash what we’ve done or even lie to deny it.
Or, rather than admit it, we wait and force the other party to point out our error.
So, the first step of a Christian apology is to come right out and voluntarily state what you’ve done:
I liedI stoleI cheatedI was lazyI shouldn’t have said…
King David learned that covering up causes internal angst and emotional exhaustion. He wrote: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” (Psalm 32:3-4 NIV)
So as painful as it is, let’s come right out and admit it.
2. Take responsibility.
When we admit a wrong, we often try to ease our pain by deflecting responsibility and our confession is followed by a “but” or “however.” Those words are usually an attempt to shift blame and deflect guilt.
I once hiked up a mountain to a cross and the trail crossed some private property. I recorded this video close by. The owner didn’t like it and confronted me. I said, “But my friend who lives nearby told me it was OK.” That didn’t help. He soon threatened to get his gun out the next time someone trespassed!
God says, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8 ESV)
Through bad experiences I’ve learned that it is far better to own up to my mistakes:
I’ve messed up
I blew it
It’s my fault
I take responsibility
Respect diminishes when we blame-shift, trying to justify or excuse our mistakes and bad behavior.
Respect begins to return when we take responsibility for our actions.
3. Apologize for the pain that you’ve inflicted and express remorse.
Romans 14:19 says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (ESV)
Giving and receiving an apology is key to fulfilling the goal of peace and mutual upbuilding.
We can say:
I deeply regret the pain this has caused you.I’m so sorry for the embarrassment I have brought to our company.I apologize for what I have done and how it caused so much difficulty.I know my wrongdoing has been hurtful to you and I am so sorry.
Warning: There are times when your apology might be met with bitterness, distrust or disdain. That’s OK—do the right thing anyway. The Bible tells us “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 ESV) The implication of this verse is to do the right thing, no matter how your apology is met.
4. Explain what you’re going to do to correct the wrong behavior so it won’t continue.
An apology is hollow if it doesn’t include any intention to change the wrong behavior. If someone hurts us, apologizes and then turns right around and does the same thing again, we know their apology was fake.
In the Bible, to “repent” means a change of mind. It means a turning from wrong to do right.
Ezekiel 18:30b says, “Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you!” (NLT)
That is what God desires and we all desire when we’ve been wronged.
For example, if a spouse has been unfaithful, they need to plan steps to insure the behavior will not occur again. Steps such as:
An accountability group
Cut off contact with the other party in the acts of unfaithfulness
Removing access to pornography if an issue
5. Ask for forgiveness.
After the four steps above, we have established a basis on which to request the favor of an expression of forgiveness.
The value of asking and receiving forgiveness is the potential of a restored relationship.
After Jacob stole his brother Esau’s birthright, they didn’t see each other for nearly 20 years. When they finally met, Jacob was deeply fearful of his brother’s potential desire for revenge.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, we read this touching description: “He himself [Jacob] went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:3-4 ESV)
Bowing seven times, in that culture and circumstance, was a wonderful way to apologize. And Esau accepted his apology.
In contemporary culture, we might say:
I know I don’t deserve it, but would you please forgive me?
I’m so sorry, would you please accept my apology?
I deeply regret what I have done. Could you ever forgive me?
6. Accept whatever response you receive.
As Christians, we are commanded to forgive. (See my article Forgiving is So Important It’s Scary!)
However, we cannot force anyone to forgive us. Sometimes our victims are not ready to express forgiveness (even though it would be the healthiest thing for them to do). Wounds might be too deep, more proof of remorse might be needed, and more evidence of change might need to be given.
Thus, we are delighted when our forgiveness is accepted, but we accept whatever response is given.
Forgiveness cannot be demanded.
If the offended is unable to give or express forgiveness, give them more time and do more restorative work to rebuild the relationship—such as in the next step.
7. Make amends or restitution whenever possible.
Restitution is a biblical concept seen both in the Old and New Testaments. It means the return of something to its rightful owner, and recompense for injury or loss.
In Luke 19, when the tax collector Zacchaeus began to follow Jesus, we read:
“And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’” (Luke 19:8-9a ESV)
Note that his restitution didn’t cause his salvation, but was a sign of true repentance. In a similar way, we can demonstrate true remorse by making amends as best we can.
Return what you stole.
Correct false statements (with whoever might have heard them).
Give a gift.
Take to lunch or dinner.
Do a favor.
In summary, these seven steps will ensure that you have done everything you can to right a wrong and as a result mend an injured relationship. To apologize, and do it the right way, is the sign of a great person, a great leader, a great family member and a wonderful friend.
Your thoughts are welcome! Please leave your comment below.
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Quoted in Good Guilt, Bad Guilt by Becca Cowan Johnson, IVP, 1996, p. 139.