How to make a good apology
By Wanda Malcolm
Feb 26, 2019
I divide my professional life between teaching at Wycliffe College and working as a clinical psychologist in private practice. The latter means that I often spend time with people who are trying to make sense of why someone they love has been hurtful to them. I also spend time with people who are trying to make sense of their own hurtful behaviour. Sooner or later, such work involves an exploration of what we long to hear from someone who has been hurtful, and what we struggle to express when we, ourselves, have been hurtful.
One of the most important lessons I've learned from this is that some apologies make forgiveness more likely and open the door to restored trust and reconciliation. Other apologies show that the hurtful person isn’t prepared to acknowledge or doesn’t understand the magnitude of what they’ve done. These apologies make forgiveness more difficult and sometimes shut the door on reconciliation altogether.
What makes a good apology?
A good apology tells the other person that we’ve seen two things clearly. First, it shows that we have seen how our actions have impacted the other person. It acknowledges that what we did was hurtful, and it conveys our regret for what happened even when we didn’t intend to be hurtful. It doesn’t excuse or defend our behaviour, and it doesn’t expect the other person to stop hurting because their pain is hard to bear. A good apology is about standing with the other person and seeing things from their perspective.
This kind of clarity keeps its focus on the other person’s experience and gives us the opportunity to show them that our apology is not about being sorry that they are too sensitive, or about being sorry that they are mad at us, or that we think our apology obligates them to hurry up and forgive us. Instead, it creates a relationship space in which we stay until they have told us the whole of what we need to understand about their experience of what happened. This is a very hard thing to do when we are the cause of the other person’s pain and suffering!
The second kind of clarity flows out of the first and is about the damage we’ve done to our self. A good apology shows that we regret our actions first and foremost because of what they did to the other person, and then also because what we’ve done (or failed to do) makes us less than who we want to be. It says that we know we need to be better in the future. Together, these two kinds of clarity give the other person hope that we've been changed for good by confronting the truth of our actions and that this will help us become someone who won’t hurt them this way again.
Help from our faith
What help might we look for in our faith? In his book Embodying Forgiveness, Gregory Jones argues that we must learn how to confess three things: the truthful acknowledgement of our sin, the proclamation of our faith, and the praise of God. Confession of wrongdoing without the experience of God’s grace and forgiveness is too hard to bear if it is no more than an exercise in self-humiliation and punishment. Jones goes on to say that when we try to confront the truth on our own we are likely to do one of three things: declare that we can’t change the past and just need to move on with things, revise the past by remembering it through a distorted lens that somehow makes it less problematic than it is, or repress it and forget it ever happened.
James 5:16 teaches that the antidote to this is mutual confession.
Confess your sins [false steps; offences] to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous person can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God – it is dynamic and can have tremendous power]. (Amplified Version)
We need each other in our communities of faith if we are to be people who proclaim the wonder of God’s love and live in the truth of our forgiven-ness. We simply can’t remember the past truthfully on our own, nor can we learn how to live with that truth in isolation. We need one another to help us narrate the truth of our lives, both in penitence and in praise.
Here is a compilation of verses from Scripture that might serve as a template for a prayer of penitence and praise:
"Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love;
Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night." (Ps. 51: 1 – 3)
"I know Lord, that my life is not my own. I am not able to plan my own course. So, correct me Lord, but please be gentle. Do not correct me in anger, for I would die." (Jer. 10: 23, 24)
"Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you." (Ps. 51: 10, 11)
"Then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness. (Ps. 51: 14b) I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart; I will tell of all the marvellous things you have done. I will be filled with joy because of you. I will sing praises to your name, O Most High." (Ps. 9: 1, 2)
"Oh my Strength, to you I sing praises, for you, O God, are my refuge, the God who shows me unfailing love." (Ps. 59:17)
So… what good is an apology? It supports the hard work the other person must do if they're to offer forgiveness, and it opens the door to restored trust and reconciliation. A good apology is a good place to begin.
Wanda Malcolm is Professor of Pastoral Psychology. She is also a registered psychologist with a part-time private practice.