Why Is It So Hard to Apologize?
IN July 2000, the California State Legislature in the United States passed a bill designed to relieve people of liability if they express sympathy to an individual who was injured in an accident in which they themselves were involved. Why the legislation? It was noted that when an accident causes injury or damage, people often hesitate to extend an apology lest it be construed in court as an admission of guilt. On the other hand, those who feel that they should be given a prompt apology may get upset, and a minor accident may turn into a major dispute.
Of course, it is not necessary to apologize for an accident that is not your fault. And there may be times when the wise course is to be careful about what you say. An old proverb says: “In the abundance of words there does not fail to be transgression, but the one keeping his lips in check is acting discreetly.” (Proverbs 10:19; 27:12) Still, you can be courteous and helpful.
Is it not true, though, that many people have stopped apologizing, even when lawsuits are not involved? At home a wife may lament, ‘My husband never apologizes for anything.’ At work a foreman may complain, ‘My men do not admit their mistakes, and they hardly ever say that they are sorry.’ At school a teacher may report, ‘Children are not trained to say excuse me.’
One reason why a person hesitates to apologize may be the fear of rejection. Troubled by the thought of being given the cold shoulder, he may not express how he really feels. Why, the person who was hurt might totally avoid the offender, making reconciliation very difficult.
A lack of concern for other people’s feelings may be another reason why some hesitate to apologize. They may reason, ‘Apologizing will not undo the blunder I have already made.’ Still others hesitate to say that they are sorry because of the possible consequences. They wonder, ‘Will I be held responsible and be asked to make compensation?’ However, the biggest hurdle to admitting a mistake is pride. A person who is too proud to say “I am sorry” may in essence conclude, ‘I don’t want to lose face by admitting my blunder. That would weaken my position.’
For whatever reason, many find words of apology hard to utter. But is it really necessary to apologize? What are the benefits of apologizing?
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“Children are not trained to say excuse me”
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“My husband never apologizes”
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“My men do not admit their mistakes”
Apologizing—A Key to Making Peace
“APOLOGIES are powerful. They resolve conflicts without violence, repair schisms between nations, allow governments to acknowledge the suffering of their citizens, and restore equilibrium to personal relationships.” So wrote Deborah Tannen, a best-selling author and sociolinguist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The Bible confirms that a sincere apology is often an effective way to repair a damaged relationship. For example, in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, when the son returned home and offered a heartfelt apology, the father was more than ready to receive him back into the household. (Luke 15:17-24) Yes, a person should never be too proud to swallow his pride, apologize, and seek forgiveness. Of course, for sincerely humble individuals, apologies are not so difficult to make.
The Power of an Apology
Abigail, a wise woman in ancient Israel, provides an example of the power of an apology, although her apology was for a wrong that her husband had committed. While dwelling in the wilderness, David, who later became king of Israel, together with his men protected the flock that belonged to Abigail’s husband, Nabal. Yet, when David’s young men asked for bread and water, Nabal sent them away with very insulting remarks. Provoked, David led about 400 men to go up against Nabal and his household. Upon learning of the situation, Abigail set out to meet David. When she saw him, she fell upon her face at his feet. Then she said: “Upon me myself, O my lord, be the error; and, please, let your slave girl speak in your ears, and listen to the words of your slave girl.” Abigail then explained the situation and gave David a gift of food and drink. At that, he said: “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have listened to your voice that I may have consideration for your person.”—1 Samuel 25:2-35.
Abigail’s humble attitude along with her words of apology for her husband’s rude behavior spared her household. David even thanked her for restraining him from entering into bloodguilt. Although it was not Abigail who had mistreated David and his men, she accepted the blame for her family and made peace with David.
Another example of someone who knew when to apologize is the apostle Paul. Once, he had to defend himself before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. Infuriated by Paul’s honest words, the high priest Ananias ordered those standing by Paul to strike him on the mouth. At that, Paul said to him: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall. Do you at one and the same time sit to judge me in accord with the Law and, transgressing the Law, command me to be struck?” When onlookers accused Paul of reviling the high priest, the apostle immediately admitted his error, saying: “Brothers, I did not know he was high priest. For it is written, ‘You must not speak injuriously of a ruler of your people.’”—Acts 23:1-5.
What Paul had said—that the one appointed as judge should not resort to violence—was valid. Still, he apologized for unknowingly speaking to the high priest in a manner that could be viewed as being disrespectful.* Paul’s apology paved the way for the Sanhedrin to listen to what he had to say. Since Paul was aware of the controversy among the members of the court, he told them that he was being tried for his belief in the resurrection. Consequently, much dissension arose, with the Pharisees siding with Paul.—Acts 23:6-10.
What can we learn from these two Biblical examples? In both instances, honest expressions of regret opened the way for further communication. So words of apology can help us to make peace. Yes, admitting our mistakes and apologizing for damage done can open up opportunities for constructive discussions.
‘But I Have Not Done Anything Wrong’
When we find out that someone was offended by what we said or did, we may feel that the person is being unreasonable or too sensitive. Yet, Jesus Christ advised his disciples: “If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.”—Matthew 5:23, 24.
For example, a brother may feel that you have sinned against him. In such a situation, Jesus says that you are to go and “make your peace with your brother,” whether you feel you have done him wrong or not. According to the Greek text, the word Jesus here used ‘denotes mutual concession after mutual hostility.’ (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words) Indeed, when two humans are at odds, there may be a measure of blame on both sides, since both are imperfect and prone to err. This usually calls for mutual concessions.
The issue is, not so much who is right and who is wrong, but who will take the initiative to make peace. When the apostle Paul noticed that the Christians in Corinth were taking fellow servants of God to secular courts over such personal differences as financial disagreements, he corrected them: “Why do you not rather let yourselves be wronged? Why do you not rather let yourselves be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7) Although Paul said this to discourage fellow Christians from airing their personal differences in secular courts, the principle is clear: Peace among fellow believers is more important than proving who is right and who is wrong. Keeping this principle in mind makes it easier to apologize for a wrong that someone thinks we have committed against him or her.
Some people, though, overuse the words that are meant to express apology. For instance, in Japan, the word sumimasen, a typical expression used in apologizing, is heard thousands of times. It can even be used to express gratitude, implying an uneasy feeling of not being able to reciprocate the favor shown. Because of its versatility, some may feel that the word is used too often and may wonder if those saying it are really sincere. Forms of apology may seem to be overused in other cultures too.
In any language, it is important to be sincere when extending an apology. The wording and the tone of voice should convey the genuineness of sorrow. Jesus Christ taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “Just let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No; for what is in excess of these is from the wicked one.” (Matthew 5:37) If you apologize, mean it! To illustrate: A man in line at an airport check-in counter apologized when his luggage nudged the woman waiting next in line. A few minutes later, when the line moved, the suitcase again touched the woman. Once more, the man courteously apologized. When the same thing happened yet another time, the woman’s traveling companion told him that if he really meant what he had said, he should make sure that the baggage did not touch the woman again. Yes, a sincere apology should be accompanied by the determination not to repeat the mistake.
If we are sincere, our apology will include an admission of any wrong, a seeking of forgiveness, and an effort to undo damage to the extent possible. In turn, the one who was offended should readily forgive the repentant wrongdoer. (Matthew 18:21, 22; Mark 11:25; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13) Since both parties are imperfect, peacemaking may not always proceed smoothly. Still, words of apology are a strong force toward making peace.
When an Apology Is Inappropriate
Although expressions of regret and sorrow have a soothing effect and contribute to peace, a wise person avoids using such expressions when it is not appropriate to do so. Suppose, for example, that the issue involves integrity to God. When Jesus Christ was on earth, “he humbled himself and became obedient as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake.” (Philippians 2:8) He did not, however, apologize for his beliefs in order to alleviate his suffering. And Jesus did not offer an apology when the high priest demanded: “By the living God I put you under oath to tell us whether you are the Christ the Son of God!” Instead of sheepishly apologizing, Jesus courageously replied: “You yourself said it. Yet I say to you men, From henceforth you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:63, 64) The thought of keeping peace with the high priest at the cost of his integrity to his Father, Jehovah God, never occurred to Jesus.
No Obstacle to Peace
Today, we make mistakes because we inherited imperfection and sin from our ancestor Adam. (Romans 5:12; 1 John 1:10) Adam’s sinful condition was a result of his rebellion against the Creator. Originally, though, Adam and Eve were perfect and sinless, and God has promised to restore humans to this state of perfection. He will wipe away sin and all its effects.—1 Corinthians 15:56, 57.
Just think what that will mean! In his counsel on the use of the tongue, Jesus’ half brother James said: “If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle also his whole body.” (James 3:2) A perfect man can control his tongue so that he does not have to apologize for its misuse. He is ‘able to bridle his whole body.’ How wonderful it will be when we become perfect! Then, there will no longer be obstacles to peace between individuals. In the meantime, though, offering a sincere and appropriate apology for a wrong committed will go a long way toward making peace.
It might well have been because of Paul’s poor eyesight that he did not recognize the high priest.
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What can we learn from Paul’s example?
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When everyone is perfect, there will be no obstacles to peace