Apology and Forgiveness

The trouble with being involved with people is that sooner or later there is an interaction in which somebody or other gets hurt. It happens in the church all the time, not so much because people are inherently wicked but because people are inherently people. So, it's quite a good idea to develop a strategy whereby the hurts can be healed, the differences which caused the hurts resolved, and people can go about the business God has given them to do, ie having challenges and difficulties in order to learn and thus grow from them. A strategy which people often adopt when they are hurt is to insist that the other person apologise. Sometimes this strategy is refined by having some sanction held over the other: some favour or other that won't be granted until the apology is given or some reward offered when it is. Of course when the apology is offered, it is often scrutinised, weighed, declared not to be a real apology and refused.

Don't get me wrong here. Apologies can sometimes be important. They are, when they are freely given and generously received, healing. When a hurt has been great and deep and public they can be very significant instruments of restoration. It's the strategy of insisting on an apology as a precondition of resolving a conflict that I am referring to here, and it is this strategy that doesn't work very often. In fact, I can't remember a single time when it has worked, but I'm sure there must be some time somewhere in the world where it has, or it wouldn't be so popular.

The reasons why it doesn't work are these:

1. An apology extracted under duress - physical or monetary or emotional - isn't an apology. It's something else, for example a political gesture or an invitation to harbour sullen resentment for years to come, but not the show of heartfelt contrition that apology seekers are looking for.
2. When I demand an apology I am, in effect, refusing to move on in my own adjustment to the hurt until YOU have done something. I am, in other words, surrendering my autonomy to you. And if you don't care or don't know what you have done or if you happen to see things a bit differently than me, and therefore have no inclination to behave as I want you to, then I am, at this point, stuffed.
3. No matter how many times I make self righteous statements to the contrary, my demand for an apology is usually not so much about the relationship as my concern for vindication and for my version of events to be seen as the "correct" one. In other words the demand for an apology is often self-ish. It therefore hinders rather than fosters a true relationship built on mutual knowledge, respect and understanding.

There is not a single time in the Gospels where Jesus demands an apology. There is not a single time when he recommends demanding an apology as a way of sorting out troubles. Jesus has another strategy, the exact polar opposite of apology mining, and that is the offering of forgiveness. He tells others to do this. He does it himself. Even when his best mate runs away. Even when some woman has been dragged embarrassed out of the wrong bed. Even when a bunch of drunken hoons in uniform have stripped him naked before his mother and his friends and are punching lumps of iron through his wrists and feet. He tells people to forgive and forgive and to keep on forgiving even when they loose count of the times when the other guy has yet again screwed up.
The offering of forgiveness works because

1. It respects the integrity of the one I am in conflict with and encourages me to listen to them and enter true relationship with them.
2. It places me in charge of my own emotions and gives me full control over my reaction to the events which have so hurt me (and in any event, it is my reaction to it, rather than the event itself which is most important)
3. My offering of forgiveness can allow the other to see me in a new way and thus invite them into change and growth, especially in their relationship to me, but in other ways as well.
4. And finally, and most importantly my forgiveness can only happen when I realise that I too am fallible and broken and prone to hurting others; and that I am, myself, forgiven: constantly, deeply, unconditionally, totally.

And because I stand before God ONLY because I am forgiven, what possible reason could I have for withholding forgiveness from others?


I love it when people think carefully about things that we do automatically, things which often make no sense and are often counter-productive. Thank you for this.
Katherine said…
Thank you for this post, also. There was someone I had to forgive, and I didn't even realise it. It feels much better now.
Elaine Dent said…
This the one of the clearest delineations of the differences between apology and forgiveness that I've read. Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Hmmm. Great words and clear thinking indeed. But do they have ears to hear? Lord, what fools these mortals be!
(But I'm saving this post for my own reference for years to come though - and please remind me if I ever appear to have forgotten it.) J

I featured this post today at http://highcallingblogs.com/9550/around-the-network-3/
Anonymous said…
Kelvin - thanks for the reminder. At my 60th birthday you wrote "May the next 10 years be as good as the last 10". The main reason for the last 10 [13 really] being good was that at 47 I learnt to forgive and the power that has to change my life in the first positive way I had ever experienced. Forgiveness may have changed those I interact with but the greatest change was and is in me and life became worth living and worth celebrating, and God could finally begin to influence and use the gifts he has given me in abundance. Thank you for a timely reminder that I need to forgive not just once but always.