Say It Like You Mean It

Rachel Chimits

Bad apologies are easy to find and even easier to produce, but what exactly makes a genuinely good apology?

One golden example of how not to make amends would be our dearly beloved Justin Bieber. He has left these glorious tidbits indelibly inscribed on social media and the internet for all posterity.

His 2012 ‘apology’ for vomiting onstage was written as follows: “I know that you guys don’t judge me, do you? You love me just the same, even though I’m throwing up all over the stage. You love me that much?”

Addressing the 2015 pictures of his own naked derrière, he wrote, “I deleted the photo of my butt on Instagram not because I thought it was bad but someone close to me’s daughter follows me and she was embarrassed that she saw my butt and I totally wasn’t thinking in that aspect. I felt awful that she felt bad. To anyone I may have offended I’m so sorry.”

When videos surfaced of him making painfully racist remarks, he posted on social media, “As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was okay to repeat hurtful words and jokes but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing ignorance.”

After another notable bout of bad behavior in 2019, he stated, “I'm determined this holiday season to take ownership of all my shortcomings and work on them for myself and the ones I love!”

Focus on you first, then other people, because that’s how apologies work…or not.

Making Absolutely No Apologies

More than one progressive self-help guide has claimed that we don’t need to apologize, especially if we believe we’re justified, if contacting the other person might be difficult, or if we feel like the other person hurt us too. Not apologizing is healthier!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Saying we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness is vital to our spiritual health.

Despite this, people often refuse to make amends in their closest relationships, assuming instead that the other person understands their intentions or unspoken feelings of remorse, that a small act of kindness later will make up for damaging words and bad behavior or that it’s ‘water under the bridge now.’

Reflecting on the apostle Paul and Barnabas’ unresolved disagreement, Times Square Church’s Senior Pastor Tim Dilena said, “Listen, if a relationship is broken and you don't address it and try to fix it then we adjust our Christian walk, we adjust our words. You can't finish well; the torch doesn't burn. You can't finish well with unforgiveness….

“You're not unchristian because you're in an argument. The Apostle Paul says you have a time limit, though. It's not six years. It's not even next Sunday, it's sundown. You are allowed to be ticked till sundown. Then you got to get it right. Listen to what the Apostle Paul said. Listen to these words, jot this down. Ephesians 4:26-27, ‘If you are angry, don't sin by nursing your grudge. Don't let the sun go down with you still angry. Get over it quickly. For when you are angry, you give a foothold for the devil.’”

The Bible doesn’t leave unaddressed conflict as just a little no-no or a sin. It’s considered a breach in your defenses for Satan to come through. It’s willingly yielding part of your heart and mind to the demonic.

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14-15).

To back this up, Brad Hambrick explained through his experience as a pastor of counseling and a seminary instructor for biblical counseling, “Think of relationships scarred by sin as rooms of your home infected by termites. Sin is a destructive force that enjoys doing residual damage until is it exterminated by repentance and forgiveness.

“There is no such thing as an ‘insignificant termite’ in your home. Likewise, there is no such thing as an ‘insignificant effect of sin’ in a relationship.”

Apologies can be the first step to eradicating our compromising sin issue.

When We Deliver a Little Stinker

All of mankind was created equal in God’s sight, but unfortunately, the same cannot be said of apologies.

Recounting the exact language of a bad apology could become an endless list because people are almost boundlessly creative in their ways of wiggling out of admitting they were in the wrong. Poorly crafted amends, though, do share a few similar characteristics. They almost always include one of the following:

  1. Make the other person’s standards or expectations seem unreasonable.

  2. Shift the blame onto the person receiving the apology.

  3. Refuse to acknowledge that one event is a pattern in a larger behavior issue.

  4. Compare yourself to others in order to minimize the problem.

  5. Make your benign intentions more important than their bad experience.

  6. Demand forgiveness in return for your apology.

While we might not be as bad at saying “I’m sorry” as Justin Bieber, chances are good we’ve all given someone else a sloppy, unappealing apology at some point. Deflecting blame or defending ourselves even in our ‘sorrys’ is easy to slip into and difficult to avoid.

“I’m so sorry that you feel hurt” (i.e. I’m not actually sorry for what I did, but you got upset about it so I’m playing nice). “Just tell me what to say to make you happy again” (a.k.a. Look how demanding you are and how magnanimous I am). “I’m so sorry for what I did, but you really provoked me when you [fill in the blank]” (i.e. You deserve what I did or said to you, but I’m going to take the moral high ground by pseudo-apologizing first.)

Brad Hambrick added this gentle reminder, though, for people who have been hurt and then wounded again by a bad apology: “Remember most expressions of manipulation are unintentional (this does not reduce culpability). Many people are unskilled at difficult communication and become unduly shaped by their own interests when they should be owning their sin.”

Gently pointing out certain coercive elements in a poorly stated ‘sorry’ can help someone do it better next time. If the conflict is still too heated, then a counselor who does this for you both can be an enormous help.

If someone is willing to call you out on a bad apology, consider the points they bring up carefully. We can all do better at saying, ”Sorry.”

The Bones of a Good Apology

What if we know that we struggle with admitting that we’ve hurt other people? What if we’re even self-aware enough to remember specific incidents where our apology went over like a lead balloon at a birthday party?

How do we improve next time we have to make amends?

Because apologies must come from a truly contrite heart, they don’t have a strict formula. People can offer up great sounding but completely insincere apologies. That said, there are a few elements that can vastly improve the odds that our sorry will actually mend relationships and lead to healing.

  1. Address the person(s) involved. Sin is always personal, against God and people who are his image-bearers. If you recognize this mentally and verbally, it’ll help smother the instinct to deny your sin and their pain.

  2. Specifically acknowledge the offense. Jesus didn’t die on a cross for ‘some bad stuff someone did once.’ You’re not apologizing for ‘whatever happened last week.’

  3. Recognize the pain your words or actions have caused others. Intentions count for very little in the end. A parent doesn’t care in the moment whether a speeding driver meant to hit their child or not. In the same way, what you did to someone else matters much more than whatever you intended.

  4. Accept the consequences. Trust in a relationship isn’t like a bank account; it’s more like a water balloon. Be prepared for some uphill work in restoring your connection with the injured party.

  5. Change your behavior. If you’re sincere about not losing the relationship or repeating this whole process over the same issue, some life renovation work is going to be necessary.

  6. Wait patiently for forgiveness. Just because you apologized doesn’t mean you now have the right to demand that the other person pardon you. That’s between them and God.

Good apologies take planning and practice, especially when emotions are still running high. Just don’t wait too long, like Paul warns about in Ephesians.

If we master this skill, though, we are bound to have happier, healthier and more God-honoring relationships with one another. Jesus placed so much emphasis on maintaining good relationships with others that he even told his disciples, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If we’re going to take this command from Christ seriously, we need to learn how to build better apologies.