Repentance is an essential part of the Christian life, relational health and maintaining an accurate view of the world. Repentance is when we quit trying to make our dysfunction “work” and embrace the life-giving alternative to our sin that God offers.
When we direct repentance toward a person we have offended, we often call it an apology. For this reason, Christians should be better at apologizing than anyone else.
In the context of offense (when we are the offended party), it can be difficult to be objective about whether an apology is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, genuine or obligatory. Motives are subjective and rarely all good or all bad.
In this post, I pull from several previous posts and resources in order to try to identify the markers of a good (i.e., God-honoring) apology and markers of a a bad apology (i.e., one that fails to accomplish God’s redemptive agenda after an offense). I hope these help us repent well when are the offending party and discern wisely when we are the offended party in a conflict.
7 Marks of a Good Apology
Ken Sande in Peacemaking for Families, his excellent book on conflict resolution, describes seven elements of repentance (bold text only). This outline is developed in the order that words of repentance would typically be spoken in conversation. Explanations and applications will be provided for each point.
* This material is an abbreviated excerpt from the mentoring manual for the Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Communication seminar (unit 5), so while in places it has a marital focus it is applicable to any relational context.
1. Address Everyone Involved.
If someone was directly or indirectly affected by your sin or observed your sin, then you should seek their forgiveness. When you fail to seek forgiveness you leave that person believing you think your actions were acceptable to God (particularly damaging for children and others over whom you have leadership responsibilities). Our repentance is often used by God to awaken us to the far-reaching, unintended consequences of our sin.
Mentality: Think of relationships scarred by sin as rooms of your home infected by termites. Sin is a destructive force that enjoys doing residual damage until is it exterminated by repentance and forgiveness. There is no such thing as an “insignificant termite” in your home. Likewise, there is no such thing as an “insignificant effect of sin” in a relationship.
2. Avoid If, But and Maybe.
Our first tendency in repentance is to soften what we admit. Words like if, but and maybe have no place in repentance. “If” calls into question whether what you did was really wrong. “But” transforms repentance into accusation. “Maybe” indicates you are not convinced your actions were wrong and invites a conversation (or debate) that is likely to go badly and, regardless, is not repentance.
Acknowledge you violated God‘s character. Repentance is about more than acknowledging sub-optimal behaviors. It is an admission that I misrepresented the character of the God whose name I bear when I call myself a Christian (i.e., literally “little Christ” when the title was first given in Acts 11:26). When we seek forgiveness we are saying, “I failed in my life purpose to be ‘an ambassador of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)’ and I want clarify what I distorted to you.”
Do not use verbs of completion (i.e., I know…) but verbs ending in “-ing” (i.e., I am learning…). Avoiding verbs of completion allows the other person to talk about other aspects of our offense without it feeling like they are “piling on” to what we have already said “I know.”
3. Admit Specifically.
One goal of repentance (in the name of “loving our neighbor as yourself”) is to make forgiveness as easy as possible (which is never easy). We can do this by being detailed in our confession. Generic confession is often a sign of insincerity. “We all know what happened,” is no excuse for brevity. Hearing that you can be specific without falling into blame-shifting or self-pity is an important indicator that you are a “safe” person and that restoration is wise.
If making a list of the specific ways that you have offended someone in preparation for confession causes you to feel intense shame, then you need to make sure that you have repented to God first and embraced His forgiveness. Your spouse’s forgiveness cannot be an emotional replacement for God’s. When shame drives confession, your emotions of contrition will take center stage and overpower your request for forgiveness.
4. Apologize (Acknowledge the Hurt).
Sin has consequences; both intentional and unintentional. Repentance expresses empathy and often takes responsibility for the dominoes that fall as a result of our sin. This is not groveling or penance (both of which are emotionally manipulative). It is an exercise in other-mindedness. Resistance to expressing empathy reveals that the same self-centeredness that made our sin seem rational in the moment.
Reflection Questions: How did my sin affect my spouse (personally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, professionally, etc.)? What messages did my sin send? What impact did the delay between my sin and my repentance have? What life pattern did my sin continue?
Remember, your goal in repentance is an effort to represent God more accurately to the person you have offended. God is compassionate and understanding to our hurts (Psalm 56:8). If our confession is rooted in a desire to make God known in each moment, then our confession will include evidence that we have reflected on the impact of our sin.