I confess. I have a hard time apologizing.
I like being right, and hate being wrong. I want to see myself as thoughtful, and am embarrassed to be caught being thoughtless. But the truth is that I sometimes say or do things that come out all wrong, even if I didn’t mean them to.
That’s just me, right? Nobody else has this problem?
In recent posts, I’ve been suggesting that there are practical, real-world implications to the apostle Paul’s teaching that love isn’t irritable or resentful (1 Cor 13:5). We’re built to remember the things that hurt us, and automatically become defensive when we feel provoked, often responding in ways that are hurtful in turn. One way to begin breaking that cycle is to cultivate compassion, both for our own brokenness and for the brokenness of others.
A little empathy, in other words, can go a long way.
To be defensive is to feel the need to protect ourselves from insult or injury. The threat can be real, imagined, or a combination of both. Someone who is angry toward us can act on that anger; that threat is real. But how we interpret the reason for their anger, the meaning we ascribe to it, can sometimes be more about us than about them.
They may be angry because something we’ve done has harmed them in some way. But we may feel doubly defensive because we hear an unspoken and possibly unintended message in their anger: You’re a terrible person. You did that on purpose. You’re incompetent. You never do anything right.
When that happens, we’re not just defending against the other person’s anger in the present. We’re defending against all the hurtful times we’ve been accused of similar things in the past.
Make sense? Now turn it around.
Imagine the other person going through something similar. We easily see the hurt the other person has caused us, but not the hurt we’ve caused them. Both of us may be hurting each other but thinking that there can be only one good guy and one bad guy in the conflict.
What’s happening in real time between us may be difficult enough. To have to manage the residue of past hurt on top of that? No wonder arguments get out of hand so quickly.
And just as quickly, an honest and humble apology can often defuse it all.
Note carefully: honesty and humility are not optional here. To say, Well, sorrrrrry! with a sarcastic tone and your arms crossed won’t help. Indeed, it will probably make matters worse. What’s needed is the willingness to admit what we’re contributing to the problem — without simultaneously pointing out what the other person did wrong.
I know: that’s really hard to do when you feel vulnerable. But this is where it all ties back in to a biblical understanding of love.
Let’s start with this: do you truly know that every spiteful or stupid thing you’ve ever said or done has already been nailed to the cross of Jesus? Right up there with everything wrong thing you will ever say or do? And that the Father loves you perfectly and completely, right here, right now, warts and all?
I’m not asking if you know all this “in your head,” as an intellectual matter. I’m asking if the full truth of God’s love and grace have ever truly sunk in.
Because when it does, it changes everything. We’re freer to admit our mistakes, our weaknesses, our sin. And when we’ve been freed — even for a moment — from having to protect ourselves, we can see more clearly the hurt and harm we’ve done others.
It’s humility that makes a loving apology possible.
And it’s God’s love that makes humility possible.
We’ll look at the other side — forgiveness — next time.