Perhaps you’ve made a mistake or offended someone. Perhaps you’ve done something unethical, even unknowingly. You know you should apologize. But what makes apologizing so difficult?
Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been in the news lately for some controversial statements, one of them a remark regarding competing candidate John McCain. While Trump initially refused to apologize, he did eventually offer something-like-an-apology. Headlines described: “Trump semi-apologizes to McCain.”
“Certainly if there was a misunderstanding, I would totally take that back,” Trump said Monday to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
Trump’s apology reminds us of an old stand-by.—Little Billy says to another kid, “You’re ugly!” Then a parent or teacher says, “That’s terrible! Billy, say you’re sorry.” And Billy says, “Oh, okay…Joe, I’m sorry that you’re ugly.”
Clearly something went wrong with that apology. And yet, joking aside, some of us may find that our own apologies come up short, like Little Billy’s.
To truly apologize, we must take responsibility for mistakes and their consequences, without blaming victims or denying wrongdoing. This requires humility, willingness to embrace transparency and vulnerability, and the courage to admit weakness.
These are difficult virtues to cultivate today. However, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the value of transparency and humility. He also tells us that weakness can be a source of strength.
In the opening of 2 Corinthians, Paul responds to accusations against his integrity. He recounts his history of being transparent. “We have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity,” he reminds them (2 Cor. 1:12). Because they have seen him in action, they know he says what he means without vacillating (2 Cor. 1:17–20). Transparency is so important to Paul’s work with the Corinthians that he returns to the theme throughout the letter. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify Gods word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:2). “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you” (2 Cor. 6:11).
Naturally, it would be much easier to be transparent with people if we had nothing to hide. But transparency requires that we remain open, even if we have engaged in conduct that is not commendable. For the truth is, we are all susceptible to errors of intention and execution.
In our culture, no less than in Corinth, we project strength and invincibility because we feel they are necessary to climb the ladder of success. We try to convince people that we are stronger, smarter, and more competent than we really feel (or are). Striving to maintain an image can prevent us from acknowledging our mistakes and truly apologizing. Or perhaps we fear that if we apologize, we’ll be taken advantage of.
It’s not surprising then, that many apologies by public figures sound more like thinly veiled justifications than actual apologies. This may be because, if we depend on ourselves as the source of our confidence, to apologize would be to risk our ability to carry on. Yet Paul’s confidence is not in his own rightness or ability, but in his dependence on the power of God.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” – 2 Cor. 4:7
In the book of Matthew, the beatitudes encourage us to not just acknowledge, but to mourn, our sin.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” – Matthew 5:4
When we honestly mourn evil words and evil deeds–even our own–God sees our sorrow and comforts us with the knowledge that it will not always be this way.
Those blessed with mourning about their own failings can receive comfort at work by admitting their errors. If we make a mistake with a colleague, student, customer, employee, or other person, we can admit it and ask their pardon. Without the emotional blessing of sadness over our actions, we would probably never muster the courage to admit our mistakes. But if we do, we may be surprised how often people are ready to forgive us. And if, on occasion, others take advantage of our admission of fault, we can fall back on the blessing that flows from the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3
Mistakes that happen in the workplace can feel especially difficult to apologize for, for fear of your job, reputation or position. However, we can rely on God’s power and comfort to see us through when we trust and act on his ways in our weaknesses.
What’s your experience with apologizing?
Excerpts for this article were taken from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary:
- Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kindgom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3)
- Transparency (2 Corinthians 1:22-23)
- Leading and Serving (2 Corinthians 4)