The First Mourning
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You’ve heard them, the non apology apology.

“I’m sorry my [words,actions,deeds] hurt your feelings.”

“I’m sorry for any misunderstanding there may have been.”

“I’m sorry you’re upset.”

You’ve heard people say things like this. I’ve said things like this. You might have too.

It’s almost an apology, but not quite. I have not really taken responsibility for my actions. I am sorry that you are upset or offended. It’s an apology I offer without admitting any wrongdoing on my part. If I’m skilled at the non apology apology, I can subtly shift the blame away from me and on to you. The problem is your feelings, your reaction, not my deeds.

“I’m sorry you didn’t understand what I did”

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.”

In his essay “Difficult, Very Difficult, (in Against the Tide) Miroslav Volf writes,” When perpetrators reluctantly mutter their ‘sorry’, they often show regret for what others have suffered, not remorse for what they have done…”.

Why is it so difficult to admit our trespasses?

We might be tempted to blame modern culture. We might be tempted to blame modern parenting. We might be tempted to blame anything and anyone but ourselves.

But the Bible tells us our refusal to admit our guilt is as old as humanity. In Genesis 3, when God asks Adam if he has eaten from the forbidden tree, Adam immediately blames Eve.  Eve immediately blames the serpent. In the next chapter when Cain has killed Abel,  God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  The Biblical story is clear, right from the start,we humans don’t want to acknowledge our wrongdoing.

Volf notes,

Strange as it may sound, genuine repentance seems more difficult than forgiveness. This should not surprise those who have pondered the gravity and power of human sin. Its most notable feature is that it unfailingly refuses to be sin. We not only refuse to admit the wrongdoing and to accept the guilt but seem neither to detest nor feel sorry about the sin committed. Given the sin’s misrecognition of its own ugliness, early Reformed theology insisted that a genuine repentance before God is possible only through the work of the Holy Spirit. The same may well be true of repentance before human beings.  (171-172, Against the Tide)

In my Christian tradition (PCUSA), one of the first things we do in worship is to confess our sin before God and receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness. It is, of course, necessary to recall and confess the ways we have sinned. And we ought to do this on a regular basis, not only when our conscious catches up with us. It seems to me, confession is a spiritual practice, a discipline. It is all too easy to go through life mouthing non apology apologies. In church, each week we practice telling the truth about our lives and actions.

It is also important to hear the assurance of God’s forgiveness. The reason I can have the courage to be honest about my life is that I know God is willing to forgive and for our relationship to be restored.

It is hard to offer an honest and sincere apology. There are not many places where we are expected to be honest about our sin and our guilt – except the church. I wonder if this isn’t part of the work of the church, shaping us into people who can name our wrongdoing, our sin. Shaping us into people who can confess, repent, receive forgiveness and then live as reconciled and reconciling people.

I wonder. I’d like to know, what do you think?

14 thoughts on “Apologies

  1. One thing for sure: our human nature make life a challenge. Our human nature seeks to place blame elsewhere first. Our human nature delivers non-apologetic apologies. Our human nature basically promotes countless selfish behaviors. …. thus hence the challenges as forgiveness, living in reconciliation, and living as God wants us to live. Then again, in our selfish way, we count on God’s forgiveness – but is it really in the way God intended? Oh … the cycle of selfishness continues. Then again, maybe our selfishness is a result of the amount of free will we’ve been given – thus the necessity of a forgiving God.

    Thanks for the thoughts Nancy!

  2. Such a thoughtful post! I’m ashamed to say that I often take the liturgy of the church for granted. YOu have made me stop and consider what those prayers of confession really mean. Grateful for that this morning.

  3. Laura, I appreciate your comments. It is all too easy to take the liturgy for granted. But I remain hopeful that even when we do, the Holy Spirit is still at work in us.

  4. A church-bred child, I was amazed once at the power of true apology in a public school setting. I had tapped a boy on the head with the paperback we were studying and he went bullistic on me, yelling, you can’t touch me! The next day I was summoned in to the counsellor’s office to face the boy and his mother. Before meeting them the counsellor tried to impress on me the gravity of what I’d done. Suitably scared, I met the mother, explained the action, and apologized for what I’d done. All tensions dropped, and we left the room amicably. I never saw the kid again that year, for he was arrested for drugs (14) and tutored for the rest of the year, I was told. I’m afraid the lesson I learned was that the kids who fear touch are the ones in trouble. There was also a discussion about the unfairness of forgiveness that worried me since the kids seemed unable to grasp a complete picture, only seeing the forgiven getting off scot free, the forgiver taking all the pain, both of the initial fault and of the loss of justice. If there is no experience of having received forgiveness (of my sins) then there is little ability to pass it on.
    But you were talking about the non apology. Miroslav’s words, as usual, were wise!

    1. Beth, thanks for your comment. Thanks for sharing your story. As I reflect on forgiveness this Holy week, it seems to me that forgiveness is, in one sense, unfair. One of the things I wrestle with in thinking about these issues is the relationship between forgiveness, fairness, justice and punishment. In fact justice is the topic for today’s post. Trying to think seriously and faithfully about forgiveness, moves me to some interesting places with respect to justice.

  5. Thank you, Nancy, for this perceptive blog. The irony of true confession and repentance is that it leads to absolute freedom: the freedom to be vulnerable and the freedom to live as one with nothing to hide. NOT to truly confess is to be forever locked into unrealistic images of one’s self. To truly apologize and take responsibility for one’s actions is to be free to be flawed and live as one under grace. But I suspect this is hard for many because it means giving up our grasp on those images of self that are politically and socially useful but hardly true.

  6. Here’s mine: Sorry that you had to write this article.

    I use the non apology apology way too often, though I’m getting better about catching myself…and revising the sentence to make it a genuine apology.

    Thanks for the good thoughts here.

  7. You could certainly see your skills within the work you write. The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who arent afraid to say how they believe. Always follow your heart. kgdadagecakg

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