“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
On two occasions in public ministry I have had people come to me to apologize for saying something critical and unkind. While I appreciate the difficulty it is to tell someone you are sorry, I did notice that on both occasion, prior to the apology, the underlining cause of their remarks were restated as a form of justification. In other words, “I am sorry for what I said, but you made me say what I did.” To use an old expression, these individuals wanted to “have their cake and eat it too.” They wanted to apologize, due to a guilty conscience, but they also wanted to justify the unjustifiable.
When a person tries to apologize, and yet maintains that the underlining cause for their comments remains, nothing is resolved. I submit that such a repentance needs to be repented of, and for this reason. While their religious clothing might be that of the publican, the voice is still that of the Pharisee. The person is still right in their own eyes. All they are sorry for is being intemperate in their remarks, but they are not sorry they said what they did. They are sorry for the way something was said, but not for what was intended to be conveyed.
At this point one of two responses can be given by the person receiving the alleged repentance. The first response is to realize the apology is not wholly authentic, but still self-serving and mean spirited though softer in tone. The second response is to realize the apology is not complete, but be gracious, and accept what is said without much comment.
If the path of the first response is chosen, nothing will be resolved, self will move to defend itself, anger will flare up, and the person making the effort to apologize will go away even more Pharisaical because, in their mind, they tried to do the right thing but their repentance was not accepted.
I would suggest that the second response be chosen, and embraced. It must be chosen and embraced if there is to be divine forgiveness. Jesus said, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
Recognize that even though the repentance of a person still needs to be repented of, that is a separate issue. Some people try to say they are sorry in their own way.
The story is told of the great Prime Minister of England during World War II, Sir Winston Churchill.
At a dinner party one night, Lady Churchill was seated across the table from Sir Winston Churchill, who kept making his hand walk back and forth across the table, two fingers bent at the knuckles. The fingers appeared to be walking toward Lady Churchill. Finally, her dinner partner asked, “Why is Sir Winston looking at you so wistfully, and whatever is he doing with those knuckles on the table?”
That is simple she replied “We had a mild quarrel before we left home and he is indicating its his fault and he’s on his knees to me in abject apology.”
Accept the possibility that a person who is trying to say they are sorry is sincere, and tell them, “Thank you. I needed to hear your apology, and you needed to give one.”
Then, there are two other steps that must be taken. Once an apology is accepted, let there be a renewed restoration of the relationship. It is not right to receive someone’s apology, and then treat them with lingering bitterness. Second, let the repentance and the apology given of a person be made known as far and as wide as their transgression.
When a person is wounded, or offended, by the comments someone makes, there is a tendency to share that transgression with others. The wounded soul seeks comfort by sharing their pain with someone else. Others are told about the offending comments. That is simply human nature. People seek out allies. Therefore, when a person returns to repent, let their repentance also be shared with those who have heard about the initial remarks. This is only the right action to take in resolving a disrupted relationship, and making sure that others are as forgiving as you have been.