How to Apologize for Hurting Someone

by John Beeson

We live in an apology-averse culture.

We are allergic to repentance and equally allergic to forgiveness.

Think about it? When was the last time someone repented to you? I mean, truly repented?

The last time a congregant apologized to me, the email began this way (I’ve tweaked it only to protect the one who sent it), “I might have been a little harsh in my email.. I had a very bad week…” In further communication, the individual referenced their apology. Internally I scratched my head. “When did they apologize?” I dug back through the email thread and saw those phrases. That is what they were referencing.

“I might have…” followed by an excuse is no apology.

I don’t say that to attack the individual I am referencing. In fact, I completely understand why, in our culture, they would think that they had apologized.

In our culture, we learn to apologize with phrases that look like this:

·       “Sorry.”

·       “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

·       “I know I shouldn’t have done that, but you shouldn’t have…”

·       “I wouldn’t have done that if…”

·       “That wasn’t my best.”

None of those are apologies.

By not learning how to apologize, we miss out on God’s purposes for our hearts and for the possibility of true reconciliation.

Apologizing is a matter of aligning ourselves with God’s truth. In 1 John 1:8-10, the apostle tells the church, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” In other words, forgiveness is available, but it does require asking for forgiveness.

We know this when it comes to others. “Why don’t they just ask for forgiveness?” we ask ourselves. “They’re making it so much worse.” We see the child turn the molehill of a small lie into the Catalina Mountains in their refusal to repent. We see a marriage crumble because of the unwillingness of one spouse to confess their sin. And yet, when it comes to us…

God reminds us of what we know in our hearts in Proverbs 28:13. He says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

Let’s run to mercy. Let’s run to true repentance.

To do so, we need to scrub our cultural understanding of apologies and understand what a true confession is. In Ken Sande’s excellent book, The Peacemaker, he explains that a true confession includes seven components. He calls them the seven A’s of confession.[1]

They are:

  1. Address everyone involved (everyone that your sin impacted)

  2. Avoid if, but, and maybe (don’t minimize or excuse your sin)

  3. Admit specifically (both attitudes and actions)

  4. Acknowledge the hurt (understand the pain you cause and express sorrow for causing it)

  5. Accept the consequences (make restitution for the wrong you caused)

  6. Alter your behavior (change your attitudes and actions)

  7. Ask for forgiveness (state explicitly, “I sinned against you by doing X, I understand that hurt you in this way. Would you please forgive me?”)

Allow me to briefly walk you through what this looks like.

1.          By addressing everyone involved, consider who far the shrapnel of your sin flew. If you gossiped, you need to apologize both to the party you gossiped to and the party you gossiped about. If you and your spouse had a fight and your kids witnessed the fight, you need to apologize not only to your spouse, but also to your kids.

2.          We can all smell out the “if, buts, and maybes” of someone else’s confession… but it’s so hard to eliminate them from our own. But an apology with an “if, but, or maybe” is no confession at all.

3.          Don’t generalize, but speak in concrete details about how you sinned in your actions and in your heart.

4.          Give space for the grieved party to express to you the way in which your sin hurt them. Don’t assume you know how much you hurt them. Ask how it hurt them and then listen well.

5.          There may well be consequences for your sin. If you are confessing looking at porn, you ought to be taking measures to protect yourself from looking at porn again. If you stole something, then you need to give back what was stolen.

6.          True repentance comes with changed behavior. This will only be demonstrated over time, but make a commitment that you will never commit this offense again.

7.          Make sure that the grieved party is ready to have you ask for forgiveness. Don’t just rush to this step as I often did when I was younger. Then ask directly for forgiveness. This is a question, not a statement. In other words, it is asking “will you forgive me?” not stating, “I hope you will forgive me,” or worse, “I’m sorry.”

Repentance is freedom! It is not your responsibility to coerce the other individual to forgive you. They may never forgive you. But when you have followed the seven A’s of confession, you have done your part in navigating what true repentance looks like. And in doing that, you have followed the way of God.

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