I still remember my first real apology, mostly because of the shock. Well into my 20s and feebly attempting to shred some tiny New Hampshire surf, I’d unknowingly trespassed into a swimmer’s zone. A vigilant lifeguard’s waving arms and piercing whistle publicized my failure to the entire East Coast.
Ego bruised, I paddled in and, stalking past the lifeguard, muttered a comment snarky enough for my surfing buddy Karl to stop me.
“Hey,” he said seriously. “That wasn’t cool. You need to apologize.” (He’s an amazing friend.) Excuses immediately bubbled up in self-righteous indigestion. Karl was right, though, so I trudged back.
“Me again,” I called out. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have treated you that way. You were just doing your job.”
Her head tilted, eyebrows climbing. “Oh, sure, it’s no problem,” she stammered, her posture relaxing.
“Well, thanks again,” I offered, and trotted away, having experienced the firstfruits of a principle that has rung true ever since: apologies amaze and disarm. For believers, our apologies can be a potent means to point people toward our Savior.
Apologies’ Powerful Witness
Peter set a high bar for believers: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God ” (1 Pet. 2:12). I get that my life should be an apologetic, a reason someone would choose to follow Jesus. That word “honorable” trips me up, though. I distort Peter’s exhortation into a pole-vaulter’s hurdle, twisting it into a command to moral perfection. To have a good witness, I reason, I have to be perfect.
Peter was often in need of forgiveness. He knew better than most that a believer’s journey to Christ involves admitting our failure to meet God’s holy standard, not obsessively perfecting our image.
A believer’s journey to Christ involves admitting our failure to meet God’s holy standard, not obsessively perfecting our image.
We humans naturally tend toward legalism, justifying ourselves before God and others by proving we are “good enough.” The gospel offers a marvelously better way. We experience joy through grace and mercy—so much so that Paul has to admonish the Roman church not to “continue in sin so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1–2). Sadly, what happens in church often stays in church. In our everyday lives we aren’t vocal about our frequent need for forgiveness, thus keeping hidden one of the most hopeful aspects of the gospel.
Unless we acknowledge our mistakes and faults, we’ll fail our communities. Our good deeds might be perceived as legalistic striving, or worse, dubbed “fake” by a culture that mistrusts seemingly perfect people. Apologies flip the script. By humbly acknowledging our brokenness, we reveal that our confidence rests not in perfection, but in God’s grace.
Apologies flip the script.
Certainly we should still aspire to holiness and not grow comfortable in our brokenness. We should still try to love people so well that they can’t help but ask us about our faith. But in a culture so wary of hypocrisy and pharisaical religion, admitting fault and asking forgiveness can be a powerful way to open a nonbeliever to the heart of Christianity.
To live “such good lives” as to be an apologetic for Christ can be easier than we think. We simply need to become “perfect” apologizers.
If, But, and That Apologies
We should make sure we’re apologizing rightly, however. Inauthentic apologies that stem from our broken, prideful hearts can reinforce legalism and do more harm. Here’s how to spot a fake, and how to be real.
Fake apologies shift the blame. The “I’m sorry if” phrase is a classic blame-shifting tactic. “I’m sorry if my blasting bass hurt your eardrums.” The provisional if implies the real problem is the harmed person’s perception.
Another forgery minimizes or excuses our guilt: “I’m sorry, but.” “I’m sorry for being angry, but it’s been a long day.” Translation: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Another “but” problem is when we remind someone else of their faults: “I’m sorry I was late this morning, but I’m almost always here before you.” We compare and contrast with others to minimize our offense.
Authentic apologies own the blame: “I’m sorry that I broke your table.” Explain without excusing. “I thought it would hold my weight, but I shouldn’t have taken that chance.”
There is evangelistic power in authentic apologies. The Bible tells us “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). I sin, you sin, and the Judgment Seat brooks no blame-shifting. When we acknowledge our sin and deal with it directly, we inspire others to take a diagnostic look at theirs.
Learning the Apology Apologetic
Authentic apologies contain a vital, direct, and disarming question: “Will you forgive me?” When you hurt someone—whatever the circumstances or your excuses for why it happened—simply asking forgiveness courageously exposes humanity’s need for forgiveness. By making a habit of quickly, humbly acknowledging your wrongs and seeking forgiveness, observers will be reminded of their sin and need for reconciliation.
There is evangelistic power in authentic apologies.
Ultimately, anyone who comes to Christ must be willing to ask for forgiveness. It should be an honor for us to model that need.
Learning to live the “apology apologetic” won’t be easy. It will take time to become a natural habit. Our pride and sinful nature constantly compromise our efforts to apologize well—making even a well-intentioned effort toward apology miss the mark.
To quote a language-learning maxim, “To speak well, you first have to speak poorly.” Even an awkward apology can send fresh air to the people around us—carrying the enticing aroma of the divine forgiveness and reconciliation our culture so desperately needs.