We probably all have memories of our parents sending us to apologize to someone: “Go to Grandma and tell her you’re sorry!” Most of the time, “sorry” was the last thing we were feeling. We were frustrated, angry, and decidedly unrepentant.
Now that we’re grown ups, there are still times when we need to go apologize to someone. Perhaps we’ve intentionally hurt them. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, and we didn’t mean to cause them distress. To me the biggest frustration is when someone is mad at me and I have no idea what I’ve done to offend them. But whatever the cause, if someone else believes we have done them wrong, then it is up to us to take the first step toward reconciliation.
In Romans 12:18, Paul exhorts us,
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
And Jesus tells us,
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-25)
Clearly, this is an important issue to God; therefore, it’s an important issue for us.
I’m currently aware of several people who are estranged from friends and/or family. While in each case the fault is not entirely their own, they all still need to apologize. Yet, as I write this, they haven’t done so. Apparently, much of the problem is that they simply don’t know how. Here it is Christmas time, and they are alone, isolated from those most important to them, the very people who love them most.
I highly doubt any of these people will read what I’m writing, much to my regret. However, if they are dealing with this issue, I have to assume others are too. Since I’ve had lots of practice with saying “I’m sorry” (I tend to screw up a lot, I guess), here are nine practical steps toward reconciliation:
- Don’t wait. Things will not get better on their own. The other person may decide to ignore the issue, but the unconfessed hurt will always be the unstated elephant in the room. Plus, waiting only gives resentment a chance to grow. It’s far, far better to own up to our mistakes and deal with them now.
- No longer can we get away with a muttered “I’m sorry Grandma,” coming from pouted lips and resentful eyes. The first step is to look inside our own hearts and make things right with God. If I’ve messed up, I need to confess and repent.
- If there’s something I can do to repay the harm I’ve caused, I need to follow through. Restitution isn’t always possible, but if there is any way to do it, don’t delay. While we can’t un-say hurtful words, sometimes a peace offering helps demonstrate our sincerity. Flowers are traditional, or depending on your relationship, something homemade might be better. Just remember, we can’t buy forgiveness.
- While we can always apologize in person, sometimes a letter is better. It allows us to reread and edit what we intend to say. Plus, the recipient has privacy in dealing with the intense emotions they’ll likely experience upon receiving it.
- Don’t get sidetracked. Never mix an apology with other issues. This is not the time to make excuses, explain how our family history “made” us do it, defend ourselves, or point out the other person’s role in the misunderstanding.
- State clearly, specifically, and in detail what we did wrong and how it affected them. For example, “I realize that I sat on your prize petunias, which squished them and made a huge dent in your flower bed. It will take hours of hard work to make it look nice again.” “I forgot our lunch date, and left you waiting at the restaurant with no explanation,” or “I got angry and called you a fat hippopotamus, hurting your feelings and embarrassing you in front of your friends.” Including details not only makes sure everyone is on the same page, it also reassures the other person that you understand the extent of the damage you have caused. Take personal responsibility, just as you did with God when you repented.
- Say we’re sorry. This one is simple. Just say it: “I’m sorry.”
- While we can’t promise to be perfect, we can certainly say we will try hard not to repeat what we did wrong. Again, we really need to mean this!
- Ask for forgiveness. We should not pressure the other person to forgive us, however. It might take them a while. Now the ball’s in their court.
Hopefully, our heartfelt apologies will result in forgiveness and a restored relationship. Even if the other person will not forgive us, we will have the freedom of knowing that we’ve done everything in our capacity to make things right.