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Children, here’s how you apologize

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, speaks during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Aug. 8, 2016. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, right, speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 18, 2016. Left photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Keane. Right photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Children, today our lesson is on apologizing. This is a very important thing that people do in life, and it is important that you learn from a very early age how to apologize. It is a very simple thing, really, but sometimes even grown-ups find it surprisingly hard to do. So today we are going to learn how to apologize. Everyone listen very closely.

People mess up. They do wrong things and hurt others. The reason people mess up is that they are not perfect. Sometimes they are far from perfect. The Bible’s word for messing up is “sin.” People are described as “sinners” in the Bible, which means not just that we sometimes mess up but that we are messed up inside ourselves, in our hearts, and this inside mess often comes out in what we say and do. From the Bible’s perspective, every time we sin we violate our relationship with God. We almost always also violate our relationships with other people.

When you realize you have messed up, or sinned, the first thing that usually happens if you are a good or even normal person is that you feel pretty bad about it. You have a bad feeling in your heart, or your emotions, that tells you that what you did was wrong. This is a very unpleasant feeling, but it is how God gets our attention to let us know we have done something wrong and need to deal with it.

That bad feeling, when you think about it, is actually a good thing. It motivates us to try to make things right with God and those whom we have hurt. The fancy grown up word for that deep bad feeling when we know we have done something wrong is “contrition.” Another word for it that Christians sometimes use is “conviction.” When we feel contrite we feel bad for having sinned. When we feel convicted it feels like God is talking to us and telling us we have done something wrong.

When this is the feeling that you have, the first thing to do is to go to God and say that you are sorry. You can just say, “God, I sinned. I am truly sorry.” You should also then go to the person you have hurt and say something like, “I sinned against you. I should not have done what I did. I am truly sorry.” This is called confessing sin, a really important part of apologizing. There is no real apology unless you confess that you have done something wrong, and really feel it, and really mean it.

The next thing to do is to say something like: “I did something wrong, and I ask you to forgive me. I am going to try very hard not to do anything like that again.” This really matters both to God and people. An apology is real to the extent that you really believe that you did something wrong, you really ask for forgiveness, and you really intend not to do the same wrong thing again. Forgiveness is something like people deciding not to hold against you the wrong thing that you did, but just instead letting it go. Forgiveness is a really, really important part of human life.

Sometimes it is hard for people to forgive when you apologize. This is sad but understandable. You might need to give them some time. You might need to show several times that you are really, truly sorry. You might need to do something special to make it right with the other person. Getting actual forgiveness to happen may be a journey. But it starts with being really, truly, visibly sorry.

Sometimes people try to pretend that they are apologizing when they really aren’t sorry. They might say: “I am sorry if anyone was offended,” which really means something like: “I don’t really think I did anything wrong, but if you do, that’s too bad, and I hope you feel better soon.” Or they might say: “Johnny did something worse than I did.” This may or may not be true, but a true apology is never about comparing your wrong deed to someone else’s wrong deed, but instead about taking responsibility for what you did, and making that right.

Never, ever pretend to apologize. If you don’t think you did something wrong, say so.

Children, there can be no right relationships with God or with other people if you do not have the ability to truly apologize. People don’t expect perfection from you. But they do expect an honest apology when you mess up. If you don’t offer that, they will find it really hard to believe anything else that you say. Learn how to apologize, okay?

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David Gushee


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  • I would say, “send this to Trump” but he would probably sue you 🙂 Excellent piece. Apologizing is an extreme act of humility and it can be one of the hardest things to do, no doubt.

  • He is the worst at apologies! Every time he says he has apologized, I re-read what his apology and scratch my head.

  • Donald Trump says he’s never done ANYTHING that he needs to ask God to forgive him for, and millions of evangelical Christians shouted “Amen brother Trump!”. Donald Trump and Jesus of Nazareth – the only two beings who have never done anything wrong. I just don’t see why the rest of America can’t see (like Evangelicals can) that Donald Trump is perfect in all his ways and was sent by God to lead us?

  • I apologize for waiting until Bill & Hillary’s second term in the White House, before switching my party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. I should not have waited.

  • A sound bit of advice, but somewhat odd, unless it’s a dig at those of us who are so called adults, because I seriously doubt children are reflectively examining the stories and commentaries on RNS. A more sensible approach would have been for the author, as an adult, to remind us as adults, the importance of humility in our verbal interactions with one another…too often a difficult and sometimes insurmountable task.

  • “I’m sorry you were offended about what I said” is the typical non-pology these days. Showing no contrition for the act, only its effects. The equivalent of, “I am sorry you have that black eye when I threw the punch at you”.

  • This is a good article with an excellent description of the art of apology. It does come at a good time because it illustrates that fake apologies such those by the orange one are just that – fake.

    I see this as a teaching device for parents to help their children understand the nature, purpose, and complete steps for apologizing. Even if children aren’t overhearing comments about the orange one from adults, this will help parents combat the notion that sincere apologies are out of fashion.

  • Many public figures are no longer able to apologize fully and sincerely. They have followers who idolize them, and will be disappointed in them, if they do. A true apology risks offending them … which most aren’t going to be willing to do (since the whole point of being famous is to acquire such followers in the first place).

    This is doubly the case for little Donnie, since the very reason he has so many followers is precisely because of his boorish, crude, offensive manner. These folk like the fact that’s a major-league jerk. They want him to offend as many people as he can. They revel in the fact that he’s been denounced all over the place. For him to offer anything resembling a true, sincere apology would anger these people — which sounds like a tall order, given that they’re already colossally angry, as it is — but yes, they would become even angrier than they already are.

    One might ask why such a vile individual could have such a large following of folk who love him because of his infantile nastiness, but the answer to that is simple: Little Donnie’s sycophants are, themselves, crude, childish, and offensive boors. They see in him a familiar spirit, a reflection of themselves, someone who says and does things they would love to be able to do, if only they could get away with it. In particular his “hot mic” moment resonates with many of them, because — if they weren’t worried about being charged with assault — they’d happily grab the privates of women they find attractive. But he talks about doing so openly, therefore they love him for it.

    It should be worrisome that something like 40% of Americans slaver over this cretin and love him for his crassness. It’s frightening to think such a large proportion of the country thinks this way and is just as infantile and boorish as little Donnie is. But they are … and worst of all, they vote. Be afraid: Be very, very afraid.

  • It is interesting in the context of this article, that among those commenting, there are a few who are the most unlikely to apologize for any thing they have said that I have ever met in my life. I do not apologize for my convictions or point of view, but I have and do sincerely apologize for occasionally letting my ire in discourse get the better of me. It is always best to be civil even in disagreement. However, I conclude that, and I include myself in this category, that the people who comment here generally have a pretty high opinion of themselves and find it difficult to express either error or humility.

  • Well, if you get evangelical Baptism all your sins are forgiven, past and future, so why do introspection, examination of conscience, apology and reparation? Such a waste of time for the saved. Apologizing would actually be offensive to Jesus.

  • Most of you do not remember when Atty General McGrath (Truman Admin) resigned because of the APPEARANCE of impropriety. His wife , not he,, had accepted a realtively minor gift, he was formally cleared of any impropriety but he felt he had to resign to respect the honor of the United states and its justice system. I guess that was one notion of Honor, not the notion of Honor now favored by aggressive conservatives.

  • Thanks for the instructions, Pastor Gushee. I’ve printed them out and plan to share them occasionally with the couples I see in marriage counseling. I’ve long noted a growing pattern of what I call “pseudoapologies,” and you’ve identified the two main ones nicely. “If” I’ve offended you fails to recognize the harm done by the pseudoapologizer. And “Yeah, but what about what you’ve done” is what I call “the best defense is a good offense.” It may work in football, but it doesn’t work in marriage. Corporate executives do the same things on behalf of corporations when they’re caught with a hand in the cookie jar. And of course politicians.