Why don’t you just apologize?

I wrote last week on my number 1 take away after writing The Gospel-Centered Woman—that the gospel is a big word, not a buzz word. My 2nd take away is that the gospel makes it safe for us to acknowledge and confess sin. And probably my biggest frustration over the last few years in conservative evangelicalism is our inability to address problem areas and correct them with humility.

A number of leaders, some with well read books on humility and/or the gospel, head ministries under public accusation for situations in which members claim to be hurt by their pastoral care. I don’t understand at all why I haven’t heard leaders who seem to be able to well articulate the gospel rush to correct and repair with those who have been hurt by their actions. To be perfectly honest, I think the lack of humble repentance among conservative leaders is the number 1 thing that undermines the ministry. People like to criticize Rachel Held Evans or other egalitarians. Lots of people like to label those making accusations against well-known ministry leaders as bitter. And if they aren’t doing one of those two things, then they are just silent. In fact, those seem to be the three main reactions I see to public criticism/outcry over issues of spiritual abuse.

Except for one case. Jared Wilson at the Gospel Coalition let me know that he and I have the same confidence in the gospel when he posted this correction over an insensitively worded earlier blog post.

But more importantly, my words hurt others whose pain runs deep and whose healing is difficult. I don’t want to load this apology up with words, because it is the most important part of this to me, and I want to be clear: For those offended or shamed, or otherwise and in any way burdened by my blog posts and my comments, your pain in this matter is totally my fault. Please forgive me.

Rachel Held Evans even commended him for his apology.

Here are some things I note about Jared’s apology. First, I don’t think he agreed with all the criticism he received. This is of note because it seems that some ministry leaders feel they can’t apologize to someone with whom they disagree on either certain general theological points or on interpretation of specific things that were said or done. My suspicion is they think that if they apologize to that person, they give some legitimacy to the other person’s belief system or interpretation of events. And whatever legitimacy they think they might give to the other person, they refuse to do the RIGHT thing of confession and reparation because they think the other person is doing the WRONG thing in their accusation or belief system.

Jared demonstrated a third way, in which the interpretation of the legitimacy of the other party is not a consideration. First, every other party is legitimate, even ones accusing you of something that upsets you or makes you uncomfortable. Get that. They were created as image bearers of God just as you and I, and because they bear His image, they are due certain baselines of respect regardless of anything else. We expect this for the unborn. But a Christian people who can’t demonstrate to the unbelieving world this baseline of respect for those living can’t cast stones when others can’t extend that baseline of human dignity to those they can not see.

This baseline of human respect allows us to HEAR criticism, and that’s the first thing we need if we are going to obey God by keeping short accounts with people.

A second thing I note about Jared’s apology was that he didn’t have to understand the fullness of what he was being criticized for to recognize the problem and try to repair with others. I can’t speak for him and do not want to assume what he did or did not understand about others’ concerns. But I will say strongly that you do not have to understand or completely agree with someone’s accusation that you hurt them to accept that you hurt them. Here’s the thing about hurting someone with our words or actions. It is irrelevant if you MEANT to hurt them. You hurt them, and that’s enough. People who don’t understand the gospel can get defensive. “How did I hurt you? How dare you accuse me of hurting you when I had perfectly good reasons for what I said or did and none of those reasons include trying to hurt you?”

Of course, motive is important, and there is a time to clarify motives with someone we’ve hurt. But in the moment that they first express their hurt, even if they don’t express it gracefully, our response should be in keeping with their status as image bearer of God, laying down defensiveness as the gospel equips us to do. “I am so sorry you were hurt by what I said/did. You are an image bearer of God and deserve dignity and care. I did not mean to hurt you. I am so sorry.”

But some of us are still strong legalists, and we want to argue for a precise mutual understanding of what was or was not said or done. My husband often says that perception is reality for the person perceiving it. You can try to talk someone out of what they perceived, but short of showing them a video tape of what went down between you, you need to accept that their perception is their reality. It may not feel fair, but the words gospel, grace, and forgiveness are fundamentally unfair words. So put the word “fair” away. It doesn’t have a place in this discussion. Fair is we go to hell. And that’s not going to happen, praise God.

I could continue to analyze this, but I need to end this post. Close to home and far away, I see this disconnect between the gospel we claim to believe and our testimony of it when we are accused of sin. The good news of Christ equips us to lay down self-justification and defensiveness. I enjoyed writing on this in The Gospel-Centered Woman and continue to think about it today. Folks, don’t hang around ministry leaders who can’t acknowledge sin and repair with those they’ve hurt. They aren’t safe leaders, and they need to study the gospel on their own for a while.

15 Responses to Why don’t you just apologize?

  1. Lore Ferguson January 7, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy. Really. Thank *you.*

  2. catherinestrodeparks.com January 7, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    This is so good. Thank you for addressing it with such grace. This is a great reminder/conviction for me–not just in writing and blogging, but in daily life as a follower of Christ.

  3. Wendy January 7, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    You're welcome. And thanks to you for tweeting it, Lore. 🙂

  4. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. January 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Thank you. Excellently expressed- my thoughts exactly. I have recently had to apologize for some things I have expressed relationally that hurt people, and though I stand by the truth of what I said, that doesn't give me the right to bash people over the head with truth. Sadly, that kind of apology is not always graciously reciprocated where I have been deeply wounded, but God's grace IS enough for that, though scars remain.

  5. Lore Ferguson January 7, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    You're welcome. It needed to be said, and it needed to be read. (Are you on twitter and I just don't know it? Because I haven't been able to find you!)

  6. Wendy January 7, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    I don't do twitter much. I need to. I need to figure out the whole post on blog/twitter/facebook at once thing.

  7. Anonymous January 8, 2013 at 3:10 am #

    Beautiful. Love your heart and your words!

  8. Anonymous January 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    so sorrowful really; makes one long all the more for the day we will hunger nor thirst anymore and the Lamb in the center of the throne will be our shepherd, guiding us to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from our eyes. He is our shepherd and we shall not want. Blessed are all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. May He continue to guide us each and all in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Rev 7:16-17 Ps 23:1,3; Matt 5:6

  9. Sarah Guild January 8, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    The truth of this was so powerfully spoken to me in marriage. As the Holy Spirit has taught me how the gospel applies to my marriage I realized that there is no “I'm sorry but…”. It's either “I'm sorry” or I'm not. And, I have been so very convicted that I loved myself more than my husband when I deem him to be “too sensitive” when things hurt him that when said to me don't bother me. It hurt him when I said things in a certain way and that reason enough to be grieved at my selfishness. As God teaches me in this relationship, it becomes more apparent how important it is to be sensitive to others in our lives in this way, too.

  10. Anonymous January 8, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

    Hi Wendy, this is a first time comment, so please bear with me as I don't understand the culture on your blog and it is easy to misspeak online.

    I had some questions regarding your post. These questions are born out of need to understand, because recently I was told something similar to this by someone I love (and unfortunately hurt).

    I certainly agree with your first point. The Imago Dei must be given it's full weight with regard to our speech (Js 3:9) among other things. With that in mind, say we prepare with great care to not hurt someone by truth which needs to be said (truth in love: or truth for their good said in a kind way). And, true to form, they do become hurt. Given this situation, is this “hurtness” something that I am culpable for? And what if “hurtness” is their defense mechanism against the truth? Hurtness is rhetorically powerful. It seems like admitting true guilt for that hurtness is to give credeance to their understanding of the truth. This seems like it could do them further damage–to further persuade them in their defense against the truth. Do you simply mean that we must be empathetic instead of really and truly asking for forgiveness? That may be. To weep for those whose perceptions are not informed by Scripture has merit, for there are many times my own are the same. I'll have to think about that some more. However, it does seem that forgiveness implies guilt, and, if someone is not guilty, how can that “innocent” person ask for forgiveness proper? It seems that there is not any true guilt to forgive.

  11. Wendy January 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    There is a difference in apology and asking for forgiveness. There is also overlap. I'm personally uncomfortable with what I call a legalistic understanding of either forgiveness or apology. It's ok if we aren't precise in the difference — if we give grace, if you will, when responding in grace. I can't tell you exactly how this looks in your situation, though I'm sure the Spirit will give you confidence and peace as you seek His counsel in the Word. I do feel confident in this–it's OK to acknowledge that you hurt someone, and sometimes (not always) letting them know that you truly hear them as they express their pain then opens the door for future conversations about the truth you are burdened to address.

  12. Zipporah Bird January 9, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Colossians 3:9–“Do not lie to one another, seeing you have put off the old self with its practices.”

    I have been hurt by peoples careless or inappropriate words, especially when they were not followed up by a true apology. It's very damaging to relationships and not glorifying behavior among the God's people. I'm not convinced by the “perception of reality” point. I've heard my own husband use that very argument when defending my honor to someone who had spoken to me carelessly–I wasn't convinced of it then, even when it was to my own advantage. It's too subjective. The scriptures have to serve for our perception of reality; our feelings sometimes point to those truths, but not always. I'm all for naming feelings, acknowledging them, etc. I've experienced manipulative people, though, claim they are hurt in order to control a situation. In those moments, I've apologized for things I didn't do just to get out from under the pressure. My mantra in recent conflicts has been, “Be humble to a fault, ” a little like your statement once that “Grace is effective.” But I'm resolved to obey Colossians 3:9 and not lie to people anymore.

  13. Wendy January 9, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Zipporah's comment makes me want to clarify something. The idea of people's perceptions being their reality needs some more discussion.

    1) When the conflict is between those of disproportionate power, the burden of graciousness shifts in my opinion. I believe a parent, for instance, has a greater responsibility/obligation to accept what they feel is unjust accusation than a child. This is not to say that a child does not have obligation! But with greater power and authority comes greater obligation. That's pretty clear in Scripture. I tend to have less patience with a parent who complains of being manipulated by a child than with a child who claims to be manipulated by a parent.

    2) People do manipulate other people. Not everyone who says you have hurt them has really been hurt by you. Some people are lying. Some are trying to control you through subversive means. Nevertheless, biblical love requires we give the benefit of the doubt when there is question. That is not the same as lying. But if someone says that you hurt them and you can not prove they are lying, then it is good and right to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  14. Zipporah Bird January 10, 2013 at 2:25 am #

    Peacemakers for Women is a great study on giving the benefit of the doubt. She actually refers to it as “having a charitable assumption” when we confront.

  15. kharking January 15, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    It seems that we can legitimately say that we are sorry for hurting someone without automatically saying that the substance was wrong (but that is always a good opportunity to make sure that it wasn't). That honors their personhood without compromising the truth. If the person chooses to take it as an admission of wrong content, then maybe at least for that incident we can trust that the Holy Spirit will finish doing whatever convicting or reviving is necessary in them.