My husband and I both have strong opinions and strong wills. This has resulted in lots of conflicts and hurt feelings over our 25 years together. After we got married, it quickly became apparent that in order to sustain peace and stay connected, we had to hone the art of apologizing.
Though the word apology, as we know it, does not exist in the New Testament, an absence of the specific word does not indicate an absence of the concept. Scripture provides lessons for how to do this well and demonstrates that there is more to making an apology than what we often hear in popular culture.
Take what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (Matthew 5:23-24)
This and other passages have guided my husband and me as we figured out how to navigate the inevitable mistakes, disagreements, and hurtful words that are part of every marriage. Here’s our short list on how to apologize well:
- Be self-reflective. “If you suddenly remember” implicates that we should set aside time on a regular basis to prayerfully explore whether or not we have hurt our spouse (or anyone else). This should not lead to morose self-reflection or incessant apologizing. If you can’t get through the day without saying I’m sorry repeatedly, hold-off for 24 hours and try to determine if you actually did something wrong or merely feel guilty.
- Initiate. The responsibility is on you, the offender, to apologize. No waiting for your spouse to bring up the offense.
- Don’t procrastinate. In Ephesians, Paul writes, “And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27) His sage advice about not letting the sun go down on our anger could be taken literally or symbolically. Either way, the bottom line is for us to not delay. If you feel convicted about a wrong you committed years ago, same rules apply. There’s no statute of limitations here. If you remember, chances are your spouse does too.
- When confronted, tell the truth. The apostle Paul doesn’t mince words to the Ephesian believers: “Stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” We lie because we fear the repercussions of being honest. And when we legitimately blow it, there are all kinds of potential implications, most of which involve loss (for example: loss of a job, loss of respect, and loss of trust). The truth always prevails and when it does, previous obfuscations or untruths make it much more difficult to make amends.
- Take full responsibility for your mistake. What we often hear in the media is actually a non-apology apology. “I am sorry if you felt hurt. That was not my intention.” Our boys were great at this when they were young; “I’m sorry for giving you a bloody nose but I didn’t mean it.” Remove the words if and but from your apology because they transfer responsibility from us to the offended. It doesn’t really matter if you didn’t mean it. You did or said it. Own it and don’t blame anyone else for your actions or words.
- Words matters. Which would you prefer to hear? “I am sorry that I over-reacted and spoke harshly to you and the kids?” Or, “Sorry. I’m just having a bad day.” The second option is better than nothing but we help the offended to forgive us when we specify our errors.
- Tone also matters. Remember the inflection used when playing the board game Sorry? (Slightly gleeful and definitely not repentant.) Avoid using that tone at all cost. It will have the opposite effect that you want.
- A face to face apology with eye contact works best. (James 5:16) Yes, it’s humiliating but that’s part of the point.
- Don’t try to control the others’ response. Allow them to express their hurt, anger, or disappointment. Seeing their reaction helps us to feel remorse and prevent us from making the same mistake again.
- Work for reconciliation. The Peacemakers Ministry believes, “Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, Christians can be reconciled to one another.” In order for true reconciliation to happen, we must endeavor to change those behaviors and attitudes which hurt our spouse in the first place. Ask your spouse questions such as, “Is there anything I can do to make things right between us?” Not only will such gestures help them to believe your sincerity, but your marriage relationship will actually deepen and become more vulnerable.
An authentic, proactive apology has the power to diffuse anger, re-establish dialogue, and bring tremendous healing. As followers of Christ, let’s not allow the enemy to drive a wedge between us simply because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do this well.