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4 Steps to a Sincere Apology

"I'm sorry" was probably one of the first phrases you learned as a tiny human—forgiveness is so central to our social structures, our families, and our faith. It's a simple sentence and a sentiment we'll voice heaps of times before it's all said and done. So you'd think with all that practice, it'd be second nature. Why is "I'm sorry" so hard to master?

Well, just because you say it doesn't mean you feel it. That's one theory suggested by the FPC staff, who are reading through Forgiveness: A Lenten Study during their lunch hour. Together, they've brainstormed some essential steps to pull off a sincere apology, even for the reluctant offender.

1. Believe it before you say it.

Finding your way to sincerity may be the toughest part—and that's before sorry ever crosses your lips. As Marjorie Thompson writes, "The purpose of repentance is to transcend our limited view of reality." In other words, you'll rarely find the inspiration for sorry from human logic. It has to come from empathy, from beyond the self.

The first step to finding a repentant frame of mind is to acknowledge the role of forgiveness in our own relationship with God. As Presbyterians, we believe that God grants us full forgiveness for our sins and welcomes us in a spirit of reconciliation. This should serve as a humbling reminder of the grace we are bound to mirror in our own lives.

2. Check your ego at the door.

We are all broken. Boiled down, an apology is just the acknowledgement that I is part of that we. It's a conspicuous emergence from the crowd.

Our willingness to admit to our own mistakes is a big step toward maturity in faith. As Thompson reminds us, "Divine love . . . has nothing to prove and nothing to hide." That is the attitude to carry into an apology, no guarding of insecurities and no posturing, just love and humility.

Setting aside ego has special implications as a parent, reminds FPC staff member Lynn Collyer: "It's important for your kids to learn by example—everyone makes mistakes, even adults." As one of those "monkey see, monkey do" situations, the inevitable parental mistake can be seen as an opportunity for mutual growth instead of an embarrassing lapse to be swept under the rug.

A willingness to admit that you're wrong is proof of maturity, not lack of it. After all, we never outgrow our human nature; we'll always be one in the crowd of the broken.

3. Leave out the ifs, ands, and buts.

"I'm sorry but . . ." begin many an apology, the regret muddled with justification and excuse. It's perfectly normal—admitting fault feels easier if we can externalize the blame, shifting responsibility onto circumstances or other people. But then, does it actually count as an apology or is it just a socially acceptable way to defer liability?

". . . but let me explain." Defending your intentions and providing context aren't always bad manners—there's often a place for these points in a broader conversation around an apology. But when you skip over the sorry bit to your own defense, you miss the whole point. An apology is about expressing regret for your own actions and empathy for another's feelings. Spending a little more time focusing on the meat of the apology will mean a lot more than a litany of excuses.

". . . if you just weren't so sensitive." Maybe so, but right back at you—if you just weren't so insensitive. Blaming the victim never should pass as an apology. In fact, it's just another offense to add to the list. An apology should be focused on reconciling and reconnecting a relationship, and the blame game just does the opposite.

4. Give with no strings attached.

An apology is not a bartering chip or a debate tactic. An apology is a gift. It's an offering, only genuine if given freely. This is well and good in theory, but what happens when you run up against an emotional impasse? What happens when your good will is thrown back in your face? What if your apology isn't accepted?

Relationships are hard: the complicated nature of family systems means that our habits and ways of relating are oftentimes learned over generations. Grievances can be inherited, excuses embodied, and resentments internalized. Apologizing in the context of these emotional landmines—familial or otherwise—can be especially intimidating. All the fears of the ego try to talk you down: What if I'm rejected? Will I seem weak? Will this be used against me?

This is yet another opportunity to "transcend [your] limited view of reality," to see the bigger picture, and trust God to use your act of repentance as a first-step toward reconciliation in the relationship—whether it's immediately measurable or not—and maturity in your own journey of faith.


Throughout the Lenten season, small groups are meeting to discuss Forgiveness: A Lenten Study, a book by Marjorie J. Thompson. As small group members chew on this text and the conversations that come out of it, they will share their thoughts and questions here on the blog. Check back often, join the conversation in the comment section, and read along if you’d like! (Copies of the book are for sale in the church office 903-597-6317.)

Many thanks to Lynn Collyer and Nanci Pollard, who contributed to this post.