Moving Beyond "I'm Sorry"
As Christ-followers, we need to hear hard truths in order to look more like Christ. These hard truths of the Gospel remind me that my old nature must be dying daily so that I can live out of my new identity in Christ.
One of these hard truths is that we hurt one another in marriage and other relationships. In biblical terms, we sin against each other. So we need to be skilled in how to work through those hurts in a Gospel-centered way.
I share this with you because, if you are like 90% of the couples we meet with, working through hurts has been dumbed down to “I'm sorry” in many relationships. Here is what Rick Thomas shares on this: “In our culture today, the phrase “I’m sorry” has become our first response when we sin against each other. The term has nearly wholly replaced biblical forgiveness. Though it may be a good start in relational reconciliation, it can never get the job done when sin is in play. This becomes particularly problematic when the depth and extent of our offenses toward each other need more biblical power to fully redress (Romans 1:16). Only transactional forgiveness neutralizes and removes the sins that come between us.” (1)
So if “I'm sorry” is not enough, then what are the steps to working through the ways we sin and hurt one another? What does a biblical apology sound like? Check out the three steps we share below:
Begin with Two Words and Mean Them: Although only saying “I'm sorry” falls short, saying those two words and truly meaning them is critical. Most of us would admit that we have mouthed the words, but our heart is not in those words. Please don't begin your apology until you can truly mean what you say. So begin with “I am sorry....”, but there is more.
Take Full Responsibility without Blaming or Making Excuses: After saying “I'm sorry...”, it is critical that we take full responsibility for what we have done. No blaming. No excuses. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden, our natural tendency is to blame others or make excuses. But as Christ-followers, we have the Spirit of God to convict us and then help us fully own our sin as we confess it.
Ask the Question: Finally, take the step to say, “Will you forgive me?” Just ask the question sincerely after saying I'm sorry and naming your sin specifically. This is a needed step as it then gives the other person the opportunity to respond. They may be ready to forgive, or they may need more time. It is really important to remember to give the other person time to respond. Just because I am ready to apologize and begin the process of reconciliation does not mean that they are there yet. I must be patient and yet persistent in my approach. We request forgiveness – we should not demand it!
Below are a couple of examples:
“Mary, thanks for making this time for us to talk. What I want to say right now is how sorry I am. I was wrong when I lashed out at you in anger this morning. I have no excuse. I know my anger hurts you and I also know it hurts our marriage. Will you forgive me, please?
“John, I just need you to know how sorry I am. I was wrong when I said those things about you behind your back. I know that really hurt you and our relationship. Will you please forgive me?”
The Foundation for the Three Steps
The foundational step to an effective biblical apology is owning your responsibility for hurting the other person. If you cannot fully own what you have done, then your apology will not be genuine and God's process will not work. The key is sincere, God-given humility.
What is humility from God's perspective? Humility is finding one's value so securely in God's unearned favor that one is not very concerned about self-esteem at all. A humble person does not put himself down, avoid compliments, or play the martyr. His status compared to others does not matter much to him because his value in God's eyes is a settled issue. Pride, by contrast, is regarding oneself as the most important person around. It is the belief that feeling loved and significant depends on being above others. It may manifest either in too high or too low self-esteem; either way, it is an obsession with one's own value. (2)
So why not take Psalm 139:23-24 and make it a prayer to God as we ask Him to help us clearly see our sin and then to humbly confess it to him and the other person. James 4:6 also reminds us all that it is when we humble ourselves that God's grace can pour in, and we desperately need His grace to have the humility and courage to do our part to repair the relationship.
Three Important Things That Might Stand in the Way
Knowing what we need to do is not the same thing as actually doing it! So let me share three things that Hans Molegraaf shares that might tempt you to marginalize or skip doing this:
You think your spouse is more wrong than you. Don’t let your perception of who’s more at fault dictate the order of who confesses first. Your gentle admission may be the single instrument God longs to use to lead your spouse to accept their part. Humility and full, mature responsibility for our own contributions–not severity of fault–should dictate who acknowledges sin first in a conflict. A friend of mine has a saying on this: “Let the more mature one be the first to confess in humility”.
Your spouse is exaggerating how they think you were wrong. How you respond is key. Your primary task is not to clarify or defend what is being said about you. Your job is to take responsibility for 100% of whatever portion is true about you! Although not always, there is generally at least a degree of truth (however exaggerated) to what is being said about you in an argument. But the path to fighting fair is to readily discern and accept responsibility for the truth. Clarifying error can come later, and usually gets cleared up in response to a genuine apology.
You need to clarify the facts of the argument before you confess. This might be the most violated principle that I see in our counseling office. Yes, the facts are important; I recognize that they mean a difference between right and wrong. But your understanding of justice does not trump in importance the person with whom you are arguing. When we prioritize clarifying facts over loving people, things get nasty: “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). In truth, sometimes the facts obscure the much more meaningful issues and interests obscured beneath their surface. When we focus on loving our spouse in spite of a discrepancy of facts, the facts take their rightful place and the conversation lends itself to a mutually respectful resolution of the true conflict. (3)
We encourage you to do one or more of the following applications to begin putting this into practice:
Honestly evaluate where you are individually in giving a biblical apology, based on the three steps shared previously. If you really want to grow in this area, ask your spouse and others close to you how they would rate you, once they know the three steps. Then begin to ask God for action steps given that feedback.
Take time to memorize Psalm 139:23-24 individually or with your spouse or a close friend. Ask the Lord to bring those verses to mind when there is relational distance between you and your spouse or another person. Then, in humility, begin to work thru the process of making a biblical apology.
Read this article together with your spouse. Talk honestly about where y'all are in making a biblical apology. Pray together and write down at least two action steps to begin working toward growing in this area.
(1) Rick Thomas Online Post: https://rickthomas.net/dont-apologize-dont-say-im-sorry/
(2) Proverbs LifeChange Bible Study, NavPress, 2010.
(3) Hans Molegraaf Online Post: https://www.marriagerevolution.org/how-to-say-im-sorry/
Written by Glen Solberg, Abiding Marriage 2021. Please email us at info@AbidingMarriage.org with questions or comments.