Love means learning to say, “I’m sorry”

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Book helps readers learn art of meaningful apologies

Why is it that some people cannot or will not say, “I’m sorry” when they have done something wrong? Why do some apologies, when given, not really mean a whole lot? And why, sometimes, is “I’m sorry” not enough? There is the story of a child who was forced to say “I’m sorry” for something he had done. His comment later to a friend was, “My mom made me say I was sorry, but on the inside I wasn’t.”

On a recent visit to a Christian bookstore my husband picked up a copy of The Five Languages of Apology by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas and was published by Northfield Publishing in 2006. Reading the book, looking for answers to my questions, stirred up a lot of memories, some redemptive, some painful.

When I was 15 years old, my father severely chastised me for something he thought I had done. When I tried to tell him I was not guilty he wouldn’t listen. I remember lying in bed that night unable to sleep, quietly sobbing. After a while I heard footsteps as my father came to my bedroom, in the dark. He told me that Mom had convinced him I was innocent, and he asked for forgiveness for his harsh words. My father’s “I’m sorry” was huge. That he would apologize in an era when parents didn’t apologize to their children, at least none I knew of, was significant and sufficient for me. It began the healing process and did a lot to dissipate the resentment I felt toward him.

A second experience with apologies came during a spiritual emphasis week at the Christian high school I attended. I was new to the school and had trouble fitting in. I knew I was somewhat different but didn’t realize how big an issue it was until the week of the revival. The speaker told the student body that we had to go and apologize to those we had wronged, and if someone apologized to us, we had to forgive.

I soon lost count of how many students came to me and apologized for saying unkind things about me. I was devastated. My self-concept, already fragile, took a serious beating that week. That these apologies were guilt-induced by the speaker and not from the heart soon became evident when, during the remainder of the year several painfully embarrassing incidents occurred. Eventually, I decided it wasn’t going to get better. My only hope was to leave and find a new beginning elsewhere. I left.

It seems to me that we all need more teaching on what it means to apologize effectively. Chapman and Thomas suggest that because we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world we will do things for which we need to apologize. Unfortunately, the lack of an apology often leads to cold and/or fractured relationships. Victims seek justice, become angry and sometimes lash out in violent behavior if the issues are not resolved.

The authors identify five components of the language of apology that work: 1. I am sorry. 2. I was wrong. 3. What can I do to make it right? 4. I’ll try not to do that again. 5. Will you please forgive me?

Those who are the victims hear apologies in different ways. For some, “I am sorry” will be enough; for others it is not. Some need to hear that we take responsibility for our actions and will do what we can to make it right. We need to learn not only what constitutes a genuine apology, but also what the language of accepting apologies is for the other person. This is a new concept for me.

Learning to apologize is essential if we want to maintain healthy relationships in the family, in our community, at our place of work and in the church. The authors write, “When we apologize, we accept responsibility for our behavior, seeking to make amends with the person who was offended. Genuine apology opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation…. Good relationships are always marked by a willingness to apologize, forgive and reconcile. The reason many relationships are cold and distant is because we failed to apologize…. The good news is that the art of apology can be learned.”

I cannot begin to do justice to the excellent content of this book. This is an excellent resource for those who need help in improving their relationships. It includes helps in learning to apologize and to forgive in many different situations. It would make an excellent small group or Sunday school study. Included are a group study guide and an Apology Language Profile that readers can take to discover their own apology language.

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