When we miscommunicate, most people readily forgive us when we ask them to do so. After all, they themselves have misspoken and have little interest in throwing stones. This is especially so when they see us making an honest mistake.
What drives people nuts is when they feel that we spoke or wrote something that was designed to hurt or offend them, and we have no intentions of owning up to it, apologizing, and correcting our error.
People have a low threshold when they feel we deliberately communicate what is untrue, unkind, unnecessary, or unclear, and then act as though we have done nothing wrong. A cavalier attitude exacerbates the problem.
Solomon revealed this to us in Proverbs 6:2–3: “If you have been snared with the words of your mouth, have been caught with the words of your mouth, do this then, my son, and deliver yourself; since you have come into the hand of your neighbor, go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor.”
Here is the four-step game plan for apologizing to others and making things right again.
One, we must go to the other person quickly and humbly. When we arrogantly ignore the person we caused to feel deeply hurt, frustrated, angry, fearful, confused, or offended, we will not remedy the problem. The problem will fester, and given they have the opportunity they will enact punitive consequences.
Pitifully, after some of us say the wrong thing, we rectify our slip of the tongue by putting our heels in on the faux pas and hunkering down. To save face, we do not come clean. Instead, we hold to the falsehood, we act as though we were not strident, we pretend we did not gossip about them, or we masquerade as though we understand what we are talking about when we are actually muddling our way through without understanding. Instead of calling a time-out and quickly and humbly facing off with our miscommunication, we become stubborn and arrogant.
We choose the tactic of sweeping it under the carpet by claiming, “This is their problem, not mine. They are too thin-skinned. They need to get over it. My moment of rage toward them passed, so they need to chill out. Sure, I mouthed some things that were unwarranted, but I didn’t mean them and they need to stop personalizing everything I say.”
To this person, Jesus says something interesting in Matthew 5:23-25: “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent.”
This is about the other person having something against us, not about whether they should or shouldn’t feel this way. Even if we don’t feel the other person is justified for having something against us, it is the better part of wisdom to go quickly and humbly to make things right. In these instances we need to error on the side of caution. And, for those of us who know for a fact that we said something wrong and offensive, there is no other healthy recourse. Sweeping it under the carpet is actually putting a land mine under the rug, which we will soon step on.
Though showing up quickly and humbly seems like too much work, it saves a whole lot of time and work later on. The quick response averts the problem from surging and spiraling out of control. Acting quickly and humbly prevents the offense from taking root.
Two, we must ask forgiveness from them. There are seven words I recommend that each of us speak: “I am sorry. Will you forgive me?” We may need to add, “How can I make this right by you?” We must not avoid asking for forgiveness since saying “I’m sorry” can be insufficient for some. The offended person might think, Who cares what you feel at this moment? What about me? This is more about my sorrow than your sorrow. Because we don’t want people to harbor resentment toward us, we need to find out if they are willing to forgive us. We need to ask the question, “Will you forgive me?”
Three, we must seek to reconcile heart to heart and be on friendly terms. This is the major goal with the other person. It isn’t just to get through our confession of wrongdoing so we can get out of there. It is to make friends, according to Jesus. This doesn’t mean we become best of friends. We can only be best of friends with a few people, but we can be on friendly terms with most folks. As best as we can, we must insure that this individual is no longer an offended opponent dead set on retaliation.
Four, we must see this as enabling us to please God. Those of us who are Christ followers need to observe the deepest point Jesus makes in the Matthew 5 passage. Jesus reveals that we are at the altar before God, seeking to offer Him our best, when we realize our brother has something against us. To Jesus that relationship has to be restored so that our relationship with God can be enjoyed. So that we can be in God’s presence with a clear conscience, the offended person in our lives takes precedence.
Sometimes we might find it necessary to write a note of apology as this woman did after she misspoke: “I am so sorry for relaying my message to you in a very unnecessary and attackful way. Please forgive me and I ask that you look past this and know that there is a lot on my plate right now and that I was speaking out of frustration because I am stressed. Please forgive my childish behavior. Will you?”
She made contact quickly and humbly. She entreated the other to forgive her. She did this with the goal of reconciling and being on friendly terms again. I also know she did this because she knew her relationship with God would not be what it could be until she made things right. And, asking the question allowed her to learn if the other person did forgive, and allowed the other person to forgive.
At the retail counter we raise our voice in complaint and slam the clerk with a derogatory remark about the company. Lickety-split, we change our tone. “I need to apologize for that ugly comment. I was out of line. Truly, I am sorry. You didn’t deserve that. Will you forgive me?”
In an e-mail to a co-worker we blast them for dropping the ball on a project. After hitting send, we know we are out of line. As fast as our legs can carry us, we head to their office to say, “Hey, I feel horrible about the e-mail I just sent. I am out of line. You have never said such things to me when I dropped the ball on you but have been most gracious. I am a jerk. Will you forgive me?”
During dinner at home we go off on a mouthy teenager and stop midstream and clam down and say, “I was wrong for reacting this way, especially piling on with stuff that wasn’t necessary for me to say. I am sorry. Will you forgive me? Then, let’s focus on what troubles you.”
At the drinking fountain in the hall at the office with a couple of other workers, we divulge information about another worker who had a DUI and subsequently moved in with his mother because his wife kicked him out of the house. As we gossip about this, we feel convicted that this is not only wrong but also our motive is vindictive because this person has not treated us kindly. Later we go to the two workers and apologize. “I was out of line for what I said. I need to ask you to forgive me.”
We know this is the right thing to do because we expect people to do this toward us when the roles are reversed. We are back to the Golden Rule. When we are offended, we do not want people to ignore us. We do not appreciate hearing “Get over it.” Furthermore, our hearts are warmed when a person comes to us quickly and humbly to express sorrow and seek forgiveness, and ask us how they can make it right.
So then, consider acting quickly on the heels of an oops.
- What is the most difficult part for you personally in humbly asking forgiveness from someone you have offended?
- Did the Matthew 5 passage about reconciling with others before presenting offerings to God bring to mind a specific situation in your life? What do you need to do, or who do you need to ask forgiveness from, before you can come before God again?
- Why is it so important that we specifically ask forgiveness from someone, rather than just flippantly saying, “I’m sorry”?
- Why must our personal relationships with others be restored before we can have full relationship with God?