Jesus. Real Life.

The Spiritual Practice of Apologizing

The following is one of several posts on all kinds of spiritual practices (including especially the every-day, not seen as spiritual variety) that Christine Sine has organized at her blog.  Whether you like my contribution or not, I highly recommend the series.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

What a powerful phrase. What an underrated, nonreligious way–available to us all–to cooperate with God’s work in this world.  It’s truly amazing what all can be accomplished by a good apology.  For the one apologizing, the process can (momentarily) defeat one’s pride, halt one’s cooperation with destructive forces and begin one’s cooperation with God.  In apologizing, we overcome our fear of judgment; become vulnerable to another person, and we become truly free from our past.  By themselves, those are pretty significant outcomes–and that’s just for the person apologizing. But simultaneously and more importantly, for the one receiving an apology, the process can be the best available aid to their healing, the opportunity to lose bitterness and pain, and to have their sense of value and what is right and “normal” to be (re)aligned with God’s ideas instead of something much less.  The apology changes the culture into which it is uttered.  It resets the standard of conduct in a relationship from a perverted state, but only by risking the messenger, not the hearer(s).  The apology is literally a powerhouse for progress in the inward and outward work of God, and occasions for its use are everywhere, every day: at home, at work, with our spouses,  friends, neighbors, and children.  Yet, for all its power and frequent opportunity, it is not common, and it is not hard to imagine why.  To apologize goes against the core of all we are and seek apart from Christ.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand me; when I say “apology,” I’m not just talking about words. I’ve been married 14 years.  My relationship with my wife is better now than it has ever been and practicing the apology has been absolutely critical to that. I’ve heard and given more apologies than I can remember. My marriage has taught me the crucial role that attitude and body language plays in the messy yet beautiful and deeply necessary work of apologizing for failings, large and small. Words alone are often insufficient. The apology, done rightly, is a whole mind, body and soul experience, not to mention whatever it takes to arrange for restitution, to whatever extent possible. When it comes to apologizing, we’ve either secured at least 51% of our heart, mind, body and tone of voice in the work, or we’re doing something other than apologizing. And usually that “something else” is defending or justifying or avenging ourselves, no matter what our words are.

 

I wonder–I know countless fights and arguments have been avoided by the practice of apologizing; how many divorces been avoided? Church splits? Wars? 

 

It’s not hard, when I take time to think about it, for me to realize the central role that apologizing must play in my tasks as a husband, father, lawyer, especially as these must be shaped in light of God’s mission.  Unfortunately, it is also amazingly easy to forget this central role, especially in the rough and tumble of work, of dealing with children and the pressures of each day. To apologize is to open ourselves to attack, to provide others with the justification to judge us, give them the ammunition they could use to fire at us, and I, at least, am often so tired and scared of being attacked. 

 

So, towards the goal of remembering how critical apologizing is to the mission of God and overcoming fear and pride, I sometimes take a few seconds or minutes (especially if I realize I need to apologize and don’t want to) and think about any one of the following amazing facts.  I’d encourage anyone to do the same:

 

  • Deep and lasting relationships are only available to those who are willing to apologize.
  • Like any loving parent of warring siblings, Jesus always cares more about me apologizing to the specific people I’ve hurt than he does about any offering I may give to him, regardless of what the prized practices of church may be.

  • I’m either gathering things together with Jesus, or I’m scattering them further apart. I can’t be part of the ministry of reconciliation and not apologize.

  • No one trusts people who never apologize, nor should they.

  • Even if everyone else abandons me for my failings, Jesus won’t, so don’t sweat it. 

  • Helping others at personal risk to one’s self is the way Jesus loves.

I recently led our church through a series on the 12 steps (made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous) as a possible community rule for Christians. Almost without exception, the step that is the most intimidating to people, even to experienced Christians, is step 9 (it certainly was to me!), which is making amends to everyone we’ve harmed. The fact that this step is almost universally intimidating to Christians tells me something.  We obviously have left many apologies unsaid, many of our own wrongs un-righted, even though we’ve confessed them to God, even as we work in ministries to right the wrongs of others.  We don’t see how Jesus prioritizes our apologizing to people for our wrongs over most other gifts we could bring him.  Of course he does so for everyone’s sake, including our own.

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5 responses

  1. A very powerful and thought provoking post. Thanks for contributing it to the What is a Spiritual Practice series.

    July 13, 2009 at 12:32 pm

  2. T Freeman

    Christine,

    Thanks. And thanks for putting together such a wonderful series with so many voices. Really good.

    July 14, 2009 at 8:38 am

  3. T, you have a knack for being able to perceive the spiritual dimension in the mundane “stuff” of life. I’m glad Christine asked you to contribute to the series. This is a great example.

    One question (more like a meditation) I have though: how can this practice become a communal practice? It seems to me that our practices, that are supposed to be responses to Enlightenment emphases on simply cognitive stuff, actually do not get at the root of the problem. In other words, our practices are still very modern because they still are very focused on simply the individual’s practice of them. For example, apologizing. Instead of telling people that they need to apologize and then sending them off to do it, can we reimagine being a part of them doing it? (If AA encourages this, I’d love to hear how this plays out) In other words, can we be a part of not only knowing what our friends need to apologize for but being with them to support them as they apologize. How did you instruct/facilitate this practice at the Well?

    Two practices are on my mind that I am trying to reimagine: prayer and marriage. The latter is on my mind more. Our marriages are still very modern. (One could argue that Hobbes and Locke have been more influential here than Scripture) How can we reimagine the Christian community being deeply involved in the life of lovers, who commit themselves to each other before a Christian community? A community that affirms this union before God? Would our marriages be stronger? Would they be deeper? Would they point to the love of Christ? Would they lead one to the church?

    Let me know what you think. Blessings.

    July 14, 2009 at 2:02 pm

  4. T Freeman

    Kyle,

    Yeah, that’s a legit concern. I wouldn’t say that AA or any support group is free from the individualism of western society, but I would say that one of the bedrock foundations to the whole “support group” approach is the conviction of how little can be accomplished by the individual alone for the vast majority of folks towards deep transformation. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the concern you raise shaped all of AA’s patterns and structures.

    One of the first things I noticed when I started working the steps with John is that in church, we cover topics–always on to the next topic next week, regardless of whether any of us had worked last week’s stuff into our real lives. The relationships are geared toward learning/covering material for the individual to then implement on their own. By contrast, when you work the steps, the relationships are geared toward the implementation. It’s a much slower, more intense process. A sponsor is there to help the person take the steps into a new way of life. If you’re on step 4 for a year and a half, then you’re on step 4 for a year and a half and you’re working through it by the power of God, with the help of your sponsor, and with the support of the group. It’s not a race. Recovering addicts know, perhaps better than anyone, that picking up a new way and purpose of life takes more power than any individual has on their own.

    You should go to a (open) support group meeting sometime to get a sense of the dynamic. They’re everywhere.

    July 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  5. Pingback: The Spiritual Practice of Apologizing « Godspace

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