Life, Hope & Truth

How to Apologize

“I’m sorry” can be two of the hardest words to say. But they are an essential part of rebuilding and strengthening relationships. How should we use them?

It was a poignant point in time for me. My teenaged son needed to be corrected. We had a discussion, but it did not go well. He could not see why I made the decision that I did. Disappointment turned to anger, which was expressed in words. And then finally he fumed off to his room.

As his door closed, I had that “rock in the pit of your stomach” feeling that every parent feels at some point. My son was angry … at me.

With a heaviness of heart, I went about my daily activities, running over in my mind what I could have done differently, what I could have phrased differently, what I could have timed differently.

Then, without any encouragement from me, my son walked back into the room and gave me a hug and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have reacted the way that I did.”

My heart soared. My boy-turning-man acknowledged his wrong and apologized. What a gift that was!

What does it mean to say “I’m sorry”?

Saying “I’m sorry” is one of the very hardest things any human can do. It is an acknowledgement of our own failure in a relationship with another person. Yet it is one of the most critical skills to develop in order to have good relationships with others and, even more important, to be right in our relationship with God.

In fact, God finds it so important that He says, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you [in other words, you have hurt or offended your brother], leave your gift. … First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

The flip side of this equation is that if a person does not forgive a brother, God will not forgive his or her sins (Matthew 6:15). If we have offended someone—if we need to be forgiven—one of our responsibilities is to make it as easy as possible for the other person to forgive us. When my son apologized, a weight was lifted from me. I wanted the relationship to be restored as much as he did. It was easy to forgive him.

The importance of humility

Why is offering a genuine apology so difficult? As humans, it is difficult to admit that we are wrong. It takes a great deal of humility to go to another person and make ourselves vulnerable by asking for forgiveness. I must ask myself, am I humble enough to admit my mistakes? Am I humble enough to make myself vulnerable to another person?

Saying “I’m sorry” is one of the very hardest things any human can do. It is an acknowledgement of our own failure in a relationship with another person. Yet it is one of the most critical skills to develop in order to have good relationships with others and, even more important, to be right in our relationship with God.We are all tasked with being clothed with humility with one another (1 Peter 5:5). The word Peter used for “clothed” refers to an apron that a servant would have worn that would have covered all of his other clothing. We need to have godly humility covering everything that we do.

What an apology is not

When we are genuinely sorry, we are remorseful for our own actions. The genuine apology is not simply, “I’m sorry that you got upset.” A statement like that doesn’t take personal responsibility. Instead, we might say, “I am sorry that my words hurt you.” This puts the action we are apologizing for clearly in our court.

The genuine apology is also not a lie. Ask yourself if you should be sorry. Is the action in question something that should be apologized for? There are times when someone will be upset or offended at you for doing something that was completely proper or perhaps even your responsibility (an example would be a police officer writing a speeding ticket). We can be gentle and kind, but apologizing for such actions would be at odds with carrying out our responsibility.

Of course, even if you feel you have done nothing wrong, it is wise to give a gentle and loving response. Saying compassionately, “I’m sorry this experience has been so upsetting to you” might not be an apology, but it might help rebuild a relationship. And there are other ways to express this without using the words “I’m sorry.”

The repentance process

When we have offended another person, we may have also sinned against God. If so, we need to repent to God and repair our relationship with Him. (Learn more in the article “How to Repent.”)

With a genuine apology, we go through a process that is similar to repenting to God. The difference is, we are repairing our relationship with another person rather than with our Creator.

The first part of that process is recognizing we have made a mistake. This is the “I am sorry, I was wrong” part of the process. It is not just a sorrow that we got caught. It is not sorrow that someone else reacted poorly to something we did. There is no excuse given. It is recognition of the fact that we were wrong and have hurt or offended someone else. We acknowledge our own wrongdoing.

The second part is asking forgiveness—it’s the “will you forgive me?” part of the process. This is described in Matthew 5:23-24 where we go to a brother to seek to restore the relationship. We should make sure the person knows what we are apologizing for—we acknowledge our specific wrongdoing to the offended person.

The third part of the process is changing. We must take action to make sure that we do not commit this offense again.

Sadly, we may go through this process and sometimes still not be reconciled to the person we have offended. Reconciliation is not always possible. We may have caused such hurt that the relationship is permanently damaged. Or the other person simply may not want to forgive and restore the relationship. But that does not take away our responsibility to go through these steps.

The offended party

What if the tables are turned, and we are the offended party—the person who has been hurt by another’s actions? What is our responsibility then?

Matthew 18:15 states, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” The offended party has a responsibility to try to make the relationship right. There are, however, two things we must ask ourselves before we follow through on this principle.

The first is whether this is a serious enough issue to make a big deal out of it. In Proverbs 10:12 we see that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” There are issues that are serious enough that we need to go to our brother, but there are also times when we need to just forgive the other person’s offense and not worry about it (Luke 6:36).

Many times the offender may never realize he or she has hurt us, just as we may have done or said something without even realizing the effect it had on someone else. It is good to remember that everyone else is just as human as we are!

The second thing to ask is whether we are going to our brother in humility and with an attitude of being a peacemaker. Remember what it means to be clothed in humility. Neither anger nor arrogance is likely to have any positive effect. It is the humble, godly approach that stands the best chance of success.

The goal of this process is not to “win” the battle or demonstrate our own righteousness, but rather to make the relationship right between us and our Christian brother.

How to respond

When we receive an apology, how should we respond? Of course, the answer is to forgive. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, to forgive means “to give up resentment of or claim to requital for; to grant relief from payment of; to cease to feel resentment against.”

Sometimes this may be relatively easy, but sometimes it is very, very hard. However, it is not optional. Remember that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). There are times when it is only with God’s help that we can truly forgive.

We always need to be willing to forgive. Christ said in Matthew 18:21-22 that we should be willing to forgive “seventy times seven” times. This doesn’t mean that we literally count out 490 times and after that “off with your head.” This refers to a conciliatory attitude—a heart that is looking for a way and a reason to heal a damaged relationship.

There is another aspect of this scripture we need to understand. There may be times when we have forgiven someone, but later something happens to reopen the wound, and we are hurt all over again. The offender may not have done anything further to us, but the hurt and perhaps anger and resentment resurfaces in our minds. We must be willing to forgive again, and later perhaps again—for the same offense.

With wisdom

It is important to understand that forgiving someone for an offense does not mean that we always have to put ourselves back into the same situation. We can and should learn from our life’s experiences.

As an example, let’s say that our friend borrows our car and wrecks it. We find out that the friend was speeding and ran a red light and someone hit the car. He or she comes back to us and genuinely apologizes, and we forgive the person. But the fact that we forgive the friend doesn’t mean that we have to loan him or her our new car. The act of forgiving does not preclude the use of wisdom in other decisions we make!

A rare and admirable trait

Today my son is a grown man with a family of his own. But he still has that ability to go back and apologize when it is needful. It is a rare, but admirable trait.

That is because the apology and forgiveness process is one of the most difficult in all of human relationships.

  • To seek forgiveness means that we are aware of how our actions have affected others. We accept responsibility, and we try to correct the situation.
  • To give forgiveness means that we release the debt that someone else “owes” us. We work through the associated emotions—even multiple times if necessary.

Both sides of the equation are vital to strong and healthy relationships. And both sides take godly humility and genuine love for our fellow man. How do we measure up?

Learn more about how to apply these vital principles in our articles “Grudges” and “How to Forgive.”

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