Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

Steps to and Components of a Proper Apology

Consumer brands like Reese’s, Pantene and others have recently run ad campaigns with the slogan, “not sorry.”

We could debate the merits and drawbacks to such campaigns, but in real life, if we want to maintain and grow our relationships with others, there’s good value in learning and practicing the art of a proper apology.

A now ancient film called, Love Story, attempted to convince us that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” as if to say that when a person truly loves someone, then no matter what they say or do, what they go through or what they put you through or even what their social status is; everything is fine, so there is no reason to feel sorry about anything.

Have you found this to be the case?  Me neither.

Intuitively, you probably know that there’s more to it than the inflection you use with your voice and in your tone when you say the words.

But when’s the last time you either found yourself in need of forming them through your own lips or wishing that someone would have been a little more sincere when sharing them with you?

We all face conflict in our relationships from time to time and when we do, too often someone ends up feeling hurt.

What happens next is often nothing short of a very interesting study in sociology with a few parts of psychology mixed in for good measure.

Parties retreat to corners.

Fingers are pointed and the “blame game” gets played.

Walls either go up or words are launched like grenades…or maybe both.

Defensive postures and tactics rival the best of those found in sports arenas.

Perhaps one person takes all the blame in order to “keep the peace.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Our goal here is Christianity.

We are called to be peacemakers more than peace keepers.

We can, and as people who profess to be Christ-followers, simply need to learn how to extend a proper apology.

The Bible teaches, “If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

The commentators at interpret this passage as follows:

“As believers, we should live peaceably with all people. This would include our siblings in Christ, as well as unbelievers. Another way to read this command might be, ‘Never let yourself be the reason for an un-peaceful relationship with another person.’

“This is not a statement of total pacifism or complete apathy, however. Paul gives two clear conditions: ‘If possible’ and ‘so far as it depends on you.’ This command recognizes that conflict is sometimes unavoidable. Some people are just not interested in making peace with us. There is such a thing as an appropriate time and place to disagree, to dispute, or even to fight. Not every action that makes others happy is something good, or something God would want us to do.”

“What does it require to live this way? For one, of course, we must be willing to admit our wrongs, to apologize, to make things right, and to forgive. This is where the idea of ‘so far as it depends on you’ comes into play. Our own ego, pride, desires, and prejudices should never get in the way of living peaceably with others. First and foremost, that means we ought not to do “wrong” things to or towards other people.”

And yet we remain sinful beings and, as such, conflict is unfortunately inevitable.

So I believe being peace-makers at times includes humbling ourselves and taking the high road to appropriately apologize where/when needed.

I say when needed because there are those of us out there who take responsibility and seem to be “sorry” for everything.”  That’s not always healthy either.

I’m talking about when we say or do something that we recognize has genuinely hurt someone, we should do better than to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or some similar unhelpful phrase.

And just leaving it at, “I’m sorry…” leaves things far too open to (potentially erroneous) interpretation.

So how can we get beyond empty, fake or even non-apologies?

Experts suggest that a proper apology includes the following steps or components:

  • Own your part/take appropriate responsibility in the conflict, hurt or disagreement.
    • Before you even say anything to the other party involved, take the time to reflect, pray about and consider the things you may have done or said that contributed to the state you’re in and how you might have said or done things differently. How might you have wanted things to go if the tables were turned?
    • Work to keep your focus on your actions – not the other person’s response.
    • Acknowledge what you did was not right and that it caused hurt and potentially harm.
  • Tell the other person that you are genuinely sorry for what you said/did.
    • A proper apology is an expression of genuine sorrow, regret or remorse.
    • Stay focused on your words or behavior(s). Name what you did wrong – be specific about your actions and why you are apologizing. Leave their part out of it.
    • Telling a person that “you’re sorry if what you said or did offended them” or “you’re sorry they feel that way” is not an apology.
    • As importantly, don’t project your actions as being someone else’s fault. “I’m sorry you made me act that way” is also not an apology.  No one can make you react a certain way.  You are ultimately the one responsible for your actions and words.
    • Pointing out the other person’s faults and demanding a reciprocal apology will undermine everything else you say. If you’re only saying you’re sorry so they will say “sorry” too, you need to reconsider the reasons for apologizing in the first place.
  • Use Empathy.
    • Perhaps your words or your actions would not have hurt you, but the fact is, they hurt someone else.
    • Be genuine in acknowledging their feelings as legitimate.
    • Try to see things from their perspective and let them know you understand their hurt.
    • For example, “I’m sorry I showed up for dinner so late. I recognize it made you feel less important (or less of a priority).  You put effort into this and I should have respected your time and your feelings better.
  • Keep explanations brief.
    • To the first point above, you should definitely think about the root reason you were unkind before you apologize.
    • Perhaps you were feeling insecure about yourself or maybe you were under a lot of stress or you were feeling a bit jealous or maybe the other person even hit one of your “hot buttons.”
    • You can explain yourself if the reason is relevant but keep it brief and remember that it doesn’t justify your behavior – and tell them so. E.g., “I was stressed out about my project deadline but that doesn’t make it okay to yell at you. I’m sorry I acted that way.”
  • Acknowledge your desire to (personally) change and act differently going forward.
    • Cite some specific ideas you have for how you would handle things differently under similar circumstances in the future.
    • In a tone and demeanor that doesn’t provoke further argument or hurt, ask how that sounds to them and if they have any additional ideas on how to make things better going forward.
    • This lets the other person know that you’ve given this real and genuine consideration and exhibits good character.
    • Giving the other person an appropriate level of permission to let you know when “you’re doing it again” or to help hold you accountable and experience growth is also a merciful act.
  • Move forward.
    • Once you’ve apologized, aside from working on the aforementioned changes that you need to make, let it go. Work to remove yourself from unhealthy cycles.
    • What happens next isn’t up to you. As hard as it is to put yourself out there and truly apologize, the fact is no one owes you their forgiveness nor a reciprocal apology.
    • Trust can be earned/re-earned. Forgiveness is a gift and quite honestly, one that none of us truly deserve.  Simply stated, I hope you’re able to forgive me.  This allows the other person to process and respond in their own way without your audience.  Ultimately, the forgiveness is between the other person and God.
    • Don’t try to force someone to accept your apology. If the other person doesn’t want to repair the relationship, respect their decision.  You do your part.  Let go of any resentment and do your best to understand things from their perspective.  It may not be right but, to them, it’s real.

Once again, a proper apology is a genuine expression of sorrow, regret, remorse and we can add here, repentance.  Repentance, as called for throughout the Bible (metanoia) is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. Though it includes sorrow and regret, it is more than that. … In repenting, one makes a complete change of direction (180° turn) toward God.  A proper apology, in addition to growing us in character, brings us closer to our Creator God and the people He planned for us to be from the beginning.

Right here with you,