Yep, it happened again. You are in the doghouse, and this time, you really messed up.
The worst part is that you were trying! There are days (and sometimes weeks) when we seem to offend people with surprising regularity. Sometimes, it is because we didn’t have enough information or the skills to handle a situation.
Sometimes we mess up because we genuinely sinned. Sometimes, our “mess-up” is really someone else’s sensitivity. Relationships are important to us, and when we mess up, it is important to deal with it properly.
Remember high school science? Even in the most controlled environment, every scientific experiment result must take into account a plus or minus three percent for human error. This means that, even in the most controlled environment, you are going to mess up at least three percent of the time. Since life isn’t controlled, that number is sure to be much higher.
So, given the fact that you can’t get through life without making a mistake, what do you do when you really mess up?
1. Ask God for forgiveness. I know, this one is a given, but it needs to precede everything else. God is not surprised that you have sinned or caused damage. However, you need to take your brokenness to God and get His fix. As long as you are trying to fix things yourself, the magnitude of your broken relationships will grow.
2. Forgive yourself. Really. You are human, not divine. You will not get off this planet without doing damage. If you don’t forgive yourself, you won’t be free to grow and improve. If you do forgive yourself, you will be able to learn.
3. Apologize. When we sin, and even when we make mistakes, we do damage to others. We need to apologize and repair the relationship.
Apologizing comes in many forms. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, and Jennifer Thomas, have written a book called The Five Languages of Apology. In their book, they hypothesize that just like we each receive love in dominant ways, we also accept apologies in dominant ways. In other words, everyone hears “I’m sorry” differently.
If you really want your apology to be heard, it might help to get to know a bit about the languages of apology and find ways to incorporate them into your habits. Here are the five languages of apology:
1. Express regret. Sometimes the simplest approach is to simply say “I’m sorry.” When you express regret, you admit the mistake and the impact it had on someone else. “I’m sorry. I didn’t call when I realized I would be very late, and this caused you to spend time waiting for me.” Sincere regret doesn’t make excuses for your behavior. It acknowledges that what you said, did, or didn’t do caused damage, and it expresses regret.
2. Accept responsibility. They say that the hardest three words in the English language are “I was wrong.” This is different than expressing regret. “I’m sorry you were hurt” is different than “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” It is tempting to explain away our actions when they were a reaction to those around us, but the truth of the matter is that we are responsible for our own actions, regardless of the cause.
3. Make restitution. This is where the languages of apology meet the love languages. For some people, words of apology need to be followed up by restitution, or a reaffirmation of love. According to Chapman and Thomas, the restitution should be done in the offended party’s primary love language. The five love languages are: words of affirmation, touch, quality time, acts of service and gifts. By taking the time to reach out in a person’s love language, you are telling them that the relationship is still there. That the damage you did does not mean that you don’t care.
4. Genuinely repenting. There are people who spend their life apologizing only to repeat the action again next week. Genuine repentance means that you have a plan to not repeat the process, and you are willing to work the plan.
5. Requesting forgiveness. Some people need you to ask them to forgive you. This is different than previous languages because it admits that the person you damaged has every right to be mad, and it asks them to forgive. This apology language, above all the others, respects that the person from which you are asking forgiveness has the rights of an individual and has the right to think for themselves.
What about those cases when someone else has chosen to be offended, but we genuinely did nothing wrong? The answer lies at the foot of the cross.
Jesus, hanging on the cross, looked at the raging crowd with compassion. “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Then he died, creating a way for every believer to walk in peace and love through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those moments when you feel truly persecuted, the Holy Spirit will give you the strength to walk the languages of apology and let God be your vindicator. You can walk in peace no matter your circumstances. Jesus made a way.
Kim Martinez is an ordained Assemblies of God pastor with a Masters of Theology from Fuller Seminary. She is a ministry and life development coach, and can be found online at www.deepimprints.com. She writes a weekly column for ministrytodaymag.com.