I’ve had to do a lot of apologizing in my day. Sometimes my heart wasn’t really in the apology and it did more harm than good. But other times, by God’s grace, I’ve felt a genuine sense of remorse over the pain I’ve caused others. If you want to offer a heartfelt apology these patterns of thoughts and behavior may help.
1. Step One: Realize You’ve Made a Mistake
We usually know when we’ve just offended someone with our words or actions. We may not recognize it in the moment, but we replay the incident in our minds. We knew from the person’s facial expression, response, or the awkwardness of the situation that we did something wrong. Admitting that we’ve caused some sort of damage is the first step to making a sincere apology.
2. Step Two: Ask God for Forgiveness
Psalm 51 is King David’s famous penitential song after he is confronted by the prophet Nathan over his sin with Bathsheba. In the psalm he says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). All sin is disobedience towards God. He is the law-giver. Any violation of His laws is an offense against Him. And His most important law after the command to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is to love your neighbor (Mt. 22:37-39). An offense against your neighbor is primarily an offense against God and it is from Him you must first plead forgiveness.
3. Step Three: Plan Out What You’re Going to Say
Choosing your words carefully tends to be one of the most neglected aspects of offering a proper apology. Saying, “I’m sorry” is fraught with emotional land mines. The intensity of the moment can easily cause us to fall back into more damaging words or aimless rambling. Planning out what you’re going to say helps ensure that you’re focusing on the specific issue and not making the problem worse or wasting time in an already tense situation.
4. Step Four: Make Sure Your Heart is Right
Humility is the only proper attitude when asking for someone’s forgiveness. Any sense of self-righteousness will poison your efforts and increase the bitterness between you and the other person. So before you apologize make sure that you’re ready internally. A good litmus test of your readiness is to ask yourself, “How will I respond if they reject my apology?” Naturally, you’ll feel some dejection and sadness. But if you think you’ll react in anger or bitterness you need to wait.
5. Step Five: Ask Permission to Speak
See if the person has time, see if they are ready to speak to you yet. They might need more time to recover from the sting of the wrong. A simple, “Is now an all right time to talk to you about what happened?”, will do.
6. Step Six: Ask for Forgiveness
Use the actual phrase, “Will you forgive me.” This gives the person the chance to demonstrate grace towards you, and it recognizes that it’s the prerogative of the offended party to extend forgiveness or not. Your apologizing doesn’t make the problem go away, it just provides an opportunity for healing and progress.
7. Step Seven: Pursue a Relationship, If Possible
Even after the apology you still have to work to rebuild the relationship. Depending on the severity of the offense you’re going to have to make many deposits of good will. Remember, repentance is not just attempting to correct your mistake but trying to build a relationship.
You Are Forgiven
Making a sincere apology is one of the most humbling and difficult endeavors we can undertake. It makes us vulnerable, it admits we’re fallible. But believers have a model and power to ask for pardon.
Jesus Christ is the only person who never had to ask for forgiveness in His life because He never sinned. He never disobeyed God and He never violated another person’s dignity. Instead Christ only ever honored God and elevated the people around Him by serving and teaching them. What did Christ earn for His perfection? Crucifixion.
Yet even on the cross Jesus cried out, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). And the Father did forgive us. But not without cost. God the Father poured out all His wrath for sin on the Son so that you and I could be forgiven. Now there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Ro. 8:1). Our disobedience has been wiped away by the blood of the Lamb and His righteousness is ours. When the Father looks at us it’s as if He is looking on His Son.
We will surely still make mistakes, and the part of us that is tempted to rebel against God will still find it hard to ask for forgiveness. But because we are perfectly loved and accepted in Christ, we don’t need to cling to our pride. When we mess up we can admit it and offer a sincere apology because we rest in the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rm. 8:39)