A few years ago I led a small group of 10 married men, that met weekly to talk about faith, family, and the meaning of life. One time, when our discussion had gotten focused on conflict at home, I asked the guys, “When was the last time you said to your spouse, “I’m sorry” ?
It was 9:00am and we’d all said sorry to our spouses already that day.
One guy said, grinning but totally serious, “I’ve told my wife I was sorry 8 times today, including once before I got up from bed!”
These men were apologizing for everything – from interrupting in conversation, to forgetting tasks and errands, to getting mad – they all reported a feeling of being judged for having said or done something wrong, and reflexively saying they were sorry. We commiserated with a bunch of jokes and laughter.
But then I asked the group, “When was the last time you said to your spouse, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.” ?
And the room was silent.
None of the men could recall having said these words or their equivalent in months or years. There was a vague sense that this is something they would say, and that there are lots of times when asking for forgiveness would be the right thing to do. But they couldn’t actually call to mind specific instances when they had done so in recent memory.
We pondered this surprising realization for quite a while as a group.
Obviously, life is full of moments when a casual apology is just right – like when you spill coffee on somebody’s stuff. And for the more serious stuff, without a doubt, the words, “I’m sorry” are necessary when you’re trying to move forward in your relationship after you've been wrong.
But in our group that morning, we reflected on how often a certain kind of apology functions as a defense mechanism in our lives. We raise it up like a shield to protect us from the pain of having to face our weakness and failure. If possible, we deflect criticism with it – let me say I’m sorry as quickly as possible, so I can move on from this unpleasant moment, without feeling too much guilt or self-doubt.
We acknowledged that we each have practiced SELFISH APOLOGY, using the word ‘sorry’ to cut off dialogue with our spouses when there was something important we really needed to talk about. And we realized together how often we’ve saved today's apologies like a tool (or a weapon) for a future argument, for whenever we might need to justify ourselves – “I said I was sorry!”
We admitted to ourselves that many of the times when we say we're sorry, we’re actually more concerned with our own needs and our own insecurity, than we are thinking about the love, compassion, and honesty we have pledged to our spouses, and to God.
And we noted how unsatisfying it feels when the tables are turned, and we’re on the receiving end of a selfishly-motivated apology, if there’s something important and hurtful that we really need to talk about.
Now let’s consider the contrast, when a true, heartfelt apology is called for, if instead of simply offering a rushed, defensive, “I’m sorry,” you say, “I was wrong, please forgive me.”
If you say, “I was wrong,” and you don’t try to escape the conversation, you don’t immediately jump to some excuse or rationalization for your behavior, and you don’t skip ahead to explaining how you’re going to do better next time, then you are giving up the protection of a casual apology.
And if you then say, “Please forgive me,” you’re relinquishing any self-serving agenda you might otherwise have had, altogether. There’s no, “I was wrong, BUT… “ No saving face, nothing to protect your ego. You’re making a decision, that the most important thing in this situation is not your ability to justify yourself, or to point out the flaws of the other person, or to escape the pain of knowing that you don’t always act like the kind of person you want to be. You’re deciding instead, that your first priority is to communicate to another person that you care about how your choices have affected him or her.
No excuses, no defensiveness, only love, from a flawed but healing soul.
This is the first step in truly making amends, and it's crucial to relationships that endure. Of course, to own one's mistakes and not run away, is to allow oneself to be quite vulnerable. It's scary and it's painful, but love is worth it.
Questions for us all to reflect upon:
When you think of how much you love someone who is dear to you, the thought that you are capable of saying or doing something deeply hurtful to them is profoundly troubling. But since you can and have caused them hurt at times, and since you love them so much, what kinds of words of apology and repentance and healing could you speak in the minutes and days and seasons to come, that will be worthy of this love? When someone you love does wrong by you, makes choices that cut you to the core, what could they say that would help you know that they truly understand the impact of what they did, and that your hurt truly matters to them, and that they care more about your healing than their pride?
The Table is a Christian Church in Davenport, Iowa, pursuing transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays, 5pm
102 E. 2nd St. Davenport