(David) I've been thinking about apologies lately as I've watched (and in the eyes of some, no doubt, participated in) the conflict surrounding the Federal Vision movement in the Presbyterian Church in America. And what I find striking is how difficult--well nigh impossible--apologies become in the midst of such strife.
Apologies aren't the American way. The president of Toyota may apologize over a recall, but Americans of note rarely apologize. And on the rare occasions they do, the apology signals not so much sorrow as desperation. Michael Vick apologizes. Ted Haggard apologizes. Senator Craig apologizes. You and I never want to come near the point of needing to apologize publicly.
The most common cause of neglected apologies is pride. But pride isn't the only reason we fail to apologize. Failure to apologize is often the product of fear.
Some years ago a young man approached me as I was browsing in a bookstore to tell me that he could now look me in the eye without malice because he had forgiven me the harm I'd done him several years before. Now, the harm I had done him had been the harm of biblical discipline; my conscience was entirely clean in the matter. But he had been hurt, what I had done had been painful and he was extending forgiveness. What should I do? Tell him I didn't need his forgiveness, shove the matter back in his face as matter of principle? Or acknowledge his pain, express sorrow for it and accept the possibility that he might parade my statement as a moral victory?
After a split-second of furious thought I told him I was glad that he had forgiven me and that I was sorry for the pain I had caused him--though I regretted being unable to apologize for the act that caused the pain. He accepted my apology, understanding, I think, exactly what I was saying.
The Christian should be ready to apologize in every situation, not arrogantly unbending because of pride or fear. But fear is a very real antagonist of apologies: fear that the apology will be construed as a confession of sin, fear that apologizing in a limited area will be viewed as surrender in the larger battle, fear of smallness or triumphalism in the one apologized to
How should we approach apologizing and apologies as Christians? The following are several suggestions for how we should address the business of tendering and receiving apologies. Remember, apologies are good. We should act in a manner that will promote rather than hinder apologies. And acting in such a manner is the responsibility of both parties to the apology:
1. Let's begin with the basic assumption that a person possessing red-blooded Christian faith will need to apologize for both sin and error. We are errant, not inerrant, sinners, not sinless. Even our best deeds have sin mingled in them. Even our most righteous deeds contain elements of error. Paul apologized to the chief priest despite being in the right. You and I will need to do likewise. This is especially true when we engage in public ministry. This is doubly especially true when we engage in public debate.
2. We must understand both in extending and in receiving apologies that apologies are distinct from confessions. Apologies are often for non-sinful things we do, either intentionally or unintentionally, that cause pain or harm. The nurse apologizes for the needle. This is simply good manners.
3. When receiving an apology we must distinguish between an apology for an action and an apology for the consequence of an action. When I apologize for stepping on your foot I'm not confessing moral error. I regret the painful consequences of something I did. Nothing makes an apology curdle in the mouth more rapidly than a condescending attitude in the recipient.
4. Apologies thrive in an atmosphere of grace. Accept apologies as gifts. Be willing, even, to accept those which strike you as falling short. Graciousness in response to a less-than-full apology may lead to further repentance.
5. Leave room for honest differences of opinion in accepting apologies.
6. Do not twist apologies into acts of abject surrender. An admission of sin is not necessarily concession on the overall argument.
7. Apologize all the more readily if you're in the right on the underlying issue. Only a fool thinks the winning side never sins in war. Only fools despise magnanimity in victory.
8. Be precise in apologies. Don't apologize for more or less than you intend to. Frame your apology as fully and as narrowly as necessary.
9. Remember to practice noblesse oblige in your life as a child of God. There are obligations attendant upon privilege and power. A big man will always apologize more rapidly and frequently than a small man. The winner should apologize more rapidly than the loser, the strong man more frequently than the weak. In all things we are "more than conquerors."
10. Christians should be especially ready to apologize when warring for the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because we are to be all things to all men, wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, because Paul had Timothy circumcised to win the Jews, and paid for the purification of the young men in the temple. Magnanimity is always a chief characteristic of godly victors.
11. Apologize in faith. The Christian advancing the cause of Christ should never fear overall defeat as a consequence of apologizing in a limited realm.