People are dangerous! Our sinfulness often brings with it the capacity to hurt others. We hurt one another with the words we say and with the things we do or forget to do. Sometimes we injure our relationships with others through carelessness or negligence. When this happens, we need to learn to find the grace to forgive as the Lord has commanded us to do.
Forgiveness is one of the great themes of the Christian faith. We learn from the Bible that God has forgiven our sins and that He expects us to pass along that same forgiveness to others. Forgiveness, though sometimes very hard to do, is absolutely necessary in order for our personal relationships to stay strong. It grows us into the image of Christ and frees others and ourselves from the bondage of bitterness and resentment.
No doubt many of us have heard numerous sermons, Sunday School lessons, and devotions on the subject of forgiveness. It is important to realize, however, that there is not only a scriptural obligation on the part of an offended party to forgive, but there is also a responsibility on the part of the offender to make things right.
It is a universal experience to be hurt, to be offended, or to suffer injury in a personal relationship—everyone knows this pain. Husbands at times say things to hurt their wives; wives now and then hurt their husbands. Parents, children, friends, and associates all know the bitter sting of being falsely accused, taken advantage of, or hurt in other ways. However, it is also true that it is a universal experience to cause offense. Our selfishness and insensitivity frequently injure others. Any time human beings live near each other, they will most likely hurt each other.
Intentionally or unintentionally, we are dangerous. We get hurt. We put up barriers. We distance ourselves from those who have hurt us, and—if we are not careful—we let bitterness and resentment grow in our hearts. To prevent this, we need to learn to forgive, and we need to learn to apologize. Apology is often the forgotten responsibility when people hurt other people, but apology and forgiveness are the hand-in-glove requirements for damaged human relationships to be properly restored. The problem is that both of these things are hard on our pride. The only thing in this world more difficult than forgiving someone is asking someone to forgive you. An apology is the highway that must be paved for forgiveness to travel.
We can learn a great deal about biblical apology from David. In Psalm 51, we get a glimpse into the heart of this man of God after he had committed an array of unimaginable sins. His heart was broken, and he knew he had damaged his relationship with his Heavenly Father. So David—in a desire to restore the joy and intimacy he once enjoyed with God—offers a sincere apology to God. From David’s confession we can learn four elements of an effective biblical apology.
1. Remorse and Regret
The starting place for a biblical apology is expressing remorse and regret. When our actions hurt people, the injured party needs to know that we are remorseful—that we can identify with their injury.
We can encapsulate this principle in three simple words: “I am sorry.” Saying these words can go a long way in healing another’s heart.
It is impossible to miss David’s remorse over his actions: “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:2–3). David was truly sorry for what he had done, and he wanted God to know it. He recognized his actions hurt others, and he sincerely acknowledged that to the Lord.
An apology cannot stand alone, though. It must be coupled with true contrition. It was David’s words spoken with humility that God took notice of in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” A flippant apology only adds to the damage. It is a second insult. An injured party does not want to be compensated because they have been wronged; they want to be healed because they have been hurt. Only a sincere apology can heal the hurting. It is important that we do not offer excuses for our actions, that we ask nothing in return, and that we are specific in our apology.
It may not be enough to simply say, “I am sorry.” The offended party is healed by hearing that you know specifically what you did that hurt them. If you lost your temper with someone and said hurtful words to them, your apology needs to recognize this. It would sound something like this: “I am sorry for losing my temper today and saying things I should not have said. I realize my words were hurtful, and that is not the kind of person I want to be.” Expressing remorse with a contrite spirit is something we all need to learn to do.
The second component of an effective biblical apology is encapsulated in saying the three most difficult words known to mankind: “I was wrong.” These words take us beyond remorse to responsibility.
David not only was remorseful for what he had done, but he also accepted full responsibility for his actions. He said in Psalm 51:3, “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” David acknowledged his sins and admitted they deserved judgment.
This step is vital. The admission of failure holds the potential to bring true change in our hearts. Saying “I was wrong” takes courage because we are afraid of what the admission of guilt will bring. But leaving outcomes up to God is an important part of growing up in Christ. Admitting guilt also requires humility, trust in the Lord, and maturity. It is a function of integrity—admitting I am not the person I want to be, but I am still trying to get there.
The third step in offering an effective biblical apology is learning to say, “Will you forgive me?” Expressing remorse communicates that you understand you hurt someone. Admitting that you were wrong is owning responsibility. But saying “Will you forgive me?” brings reconciliation. Years ago I learned that when I had offended my wife, in order for her heart to fully rest again, it helped her to hear me ask if she would forgive me. This is because these words are more than a question; they are also a statement. They say to the offended party, “I want our relationship to be restored; you are important to me; and my pride will not stand in the way of my love for you.”
These three phrases combined say to the injured party that there is still hope. “I am not finished growing, I have not given up on myself, and I don’t want you to give up on me either.” Alexander Pope said, “A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong; he is merely saying that he is wiser today than yesterday.” And, I might add, that there is still hope for our tomorrow. One of life’s greatest failures is not admitting that you have failed. No one has ever choked to death on the words, “I am sorry. I was wrong. Will you please forgive me?”
David cried out for reconciliation to God when he asked the Lord not to cast him away from His presence. His relationship with God was more important than anything else in his life.
The first three components could be communicated with words, but this fourth component is an action. True repentance is the final component to an effective biblical apology. It will never be enough to simply apologize. As sinful and dangerous people, we also need to change. Repenting not only recognizes that what we did was wrong, but it also expresses a desire to do right.
We owe it to the people we love to be at our best for them. An apology is a desire to continue growing. It is the best way to keep a contrite heart and not be at odds with the Lord. An apology is required to safeguard the important relationships in our lives, and it is necessary to do what’s right!