How to Confess and Apologize When You've Hurt a Loved One
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2019 9 Apr
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, I hurt one of my best friends. We both said that everything was okay. But, it’s not. There is a wall between us that hasn’t gone away. What’s the best way to fix this?
An apology, accompanied by a good confession is the best way to fix it.
Let me tell you about a deep hurt that I put on Julie—and how we healed that hurt when I apologized and confessed that what I did was hurtful and damaging to our marriage.
I was so busy starting a church that I didn’t have much time for Julie. I’d gone two years without a day off.
One Sunday I said to Julie, “Why don’t we go to Phoenix this weekend. We can spend the night in a nice hotel. We’ll have dinner at a nice restaurant. We’ll go to a movie. After breakfast, we will go to the mall and shop as long as you like. We’ll have a nice dinner. Then, we will drive back home to Tucson and get ready for church services tomorrow.”
It was Friday, almost noon, and my briefcase was packed. I was heading out the door when my phone rang. Ken, one of our deacons, was on the phone. “Hey, Roger, I just heard you were driving to Phoenix. My car broke down in Phoenix and it’s ready for pickup. Can you give me a ride to Phoenix? The repair shop is right on the way.”
What choice did I have? How would it look to the congregation if the young pastor refused to take Ken to Phoenix?
I picked up the phone and called Julie: “I’m on the way. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. By the way, Ken called...car broke down in Phoenix...ready for pickup...needs a ride...” CLICK. She hung up on me.
We didn’t go to a fancy hotel. We spent the night in the Holiday Inn. We didn’t go to a nice restaurant. We ate dinner at the Holiday Inn. We didn’t go to a movie. We watched TV at the Holiday Inn. We didn’t go to a special place for breakfast. We ate breakfast at the Holiday Inn. After about 30 minutes at the mall Julie said, “I’m not having any fun. Let’s go home.”
We were pulling suitcases out of the car when I said, “I’m so sorry. I know this marriage is not turning out to be what you wanted. If you’d like, I’ll give you a divorce.”
Julie looked at me and said, “No, we’ll work this out.” So, we went inside and got ready for Sunday.
Over the next several months I’d say to Julie, “I am so sorry. Will you please forgive me?” She would say, “Okay, I forgive you.” But we both knew that deep inside, things were not all right.
Let’s make my answer an interactive, working document. Let’s talk about how to make a good apology and confession.
First, let’s think of one way that we’ve hurt our spouse, children, family, or friends.
Let me give you a few examples to start you thinking.
One of my favorite nicknames for Julie was, “Muffin.” After she got pregnant, I started calling her “Pumpkin” I thought it was funny. Julie got hurt.
One of the most hurtful, critical words that I ever perpetrated “against” Julie was at an elder Christmas party. She said something that I thought was stupid and without thinking I quoted the Proverb which says, “Even a fool is deemed wise when he keeps his mouth shut.” (Proverbs 17:28).
Everyone gasped. I was incredibly embarrassed.
I said, “I am sorry,” but that didn’t help. I wounded her deeply. By the way, everyone at the dinner table agreed that I was the stupid one.
Until I learned better, I was often insensitive to the feelings of my children. Occasionally, I would tease the girls and they would cry. We finally figured out the problem. I was using “boy humor” instead of using “girl humor.” There is a difference, you know. I grew up with one brother and no sisters. I was just doing what came naturally and the girls got hurt.
Julie has a hard time keeping up with car keys. She loses them all the time. I’d often get a call at 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday night after choir practice: “Come get me. I can’t find my keys.” Time and time again I had to redress and drive to church to help her look.
One afternoon I noticed Julie’s keys on the front seat of her car. I’d had enough!
I entered the church to find Julie practicing with seven’ little violinists for an upcoming worship service. I charged down the aisle to the piano shaking the keys: “You did it again!” I threw them on the piano keyboard and said angrily, “How many times must I ask you to keep up with your keys?” I turned and stalked back to my office. You should have seen the reaction of the young violinists when they saw the pastor’s behavior!
I began working on my sermon for next Sunday. My topic was 1 Corinthians 13 on love. (That’s the honest truth.)
I got to feeling really guilty for what I’d done.
Shamefully, I returned to the piano. I said to Julie, “I’m so sorry, I know I hurt you, I shouldn’t have acted that way. Will you please forgive me?”
Of course, she forgave me. She’s a pastor’s wife.
Then, we confess to God and receive his forgiveness.
So, I am standing at the trunk of the car... “Do you want a divorce?”
Maybe what I should have done, before I talked to Julie, was to talk to God about what I’d done. Can you imagine that if I had first talked to God and gotten His perspective that I might have approached Julie a little differently?
We deal with God before we go any further.
Confess really means that I am to say the same about my sin that God says.
This means to get alone with God and deal with the fact that my behavior is intricately involved with why He had to die.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Godly sorrow means that I begin to feel what Jesus felt when he watched me do what I did.
I begin to imagine Jesus watching as I charged down the aisle shaking Julie’s keys. I saw Jesus in pain for Julie. He knows what’s coming. He’s hurting for Julie and embarrassed for me. He sees me throw the keys on the piano. He watches Julie’s face in horror. My behavior breaks his heart. I begin to get a sense of what Jesus felt when he saw me do what I did.
My behavior is not only sin, it is part of what crucified Jesus. As I enter into godly sorrow, what stirs in me is what the Old Testament calls “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) and what the New Testament calls, “godly sorrow.”
I do not believe we are ready to make things right with the one we’ve hurt until we’ve experienced “Godly Sorrow.”
Now, it’s time to confess that what we did was wrong; and ask the one we’ve hurt for forgiveness.
Here is a suggestion as to what a good apologetic confession sounds like:
“I realize that I have hurt you deeply by my selfishness, inattention, and wrong priorities, and that was wrong of me, will you please forgive me?”
There are seven key ingredients to a good apologetic confession.
These seven principles were formulated by David Ferguson of Intimate Life Ministries:
1. The scope of our confession should equal the scope of our offense.
If we’ve hurt a family member, then we confess to that family member. We don’t need to confess to anyone else.
If we’ve hurt some folks at the office, then we confess to that coworker. We need go no further.
If we’ve hurt someone in a Bible study, we confess to those in the Bible study.
If what we’ve done offends others, we must confess to them as well. (James 5:16).
2. Apologetic confessions are most effective when we take the initiative.
Apologize and confess without having to first be confronted by those we’ve offended.
3. Our apologetic confession should have an emotional dimension.
Usually, our sin is not only wrong, it emotionally hurts the one we’ve offended. We must not only confess our sin, but also show concern and comfort for the hurt we caused.
4. Be specific. Name the sin.
Let there be no doubt about exactly what you did.
5. Use the phrase “I Was Wrong” instead of “I’m Sorry.”
Politicians are experts at deflecting blame: “If what I said about the SPCA offended anyone, I’m sorry.” No, don’t say that. Instead, say, “What I did was wrong. I did offend you and I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
Two or three little words can make all the difference in the world.
6. After your apologetic confession, put a period and stop talking.
Do not try to defend yourself or your actions. That will only ruin everything. We all have too much lawyer in us.
7. Now it’s time to ask the one we’ve hurt to forgive us.
Watch the person carefully as you apologize and ask for forgiveness. You can tell by their facial response whether or not you’ve asked for enough forgiveness.
Some things are easier to forgive than some others.
What if it is a really big hurt?
Remember the big hurt I inflicted on Julie with the K.D. Phoenix trip?
Off and on for the next several months I’d show up and say to Julie, ““Will you still forgive me for that? Please?”
She even said on several occasions, “Yes, I forgive you for that.” However, we both knew that the issue was not healed.
Do you see the problem we have here? It just hurt me a little bit. It hurt her a lot. She is filled with pain and it is hard to forgive a lot of hurt when the one who hurt you is only asking for a little bit of forgiveness.
In other words, it’s hard to forgive ten gallons worth of hurt when the perpetrator is only asking for a pint’s worth of forgiveness.
So, one evening after dinner, we sat in our blue chairs in the living room and I said to Julie, “I don’t care how long it takes, I want you to take all the time you need to tell me how much I’ve hurt you. I really did need to be the one to know what ten gallons of hurt really felt like.
“Roger, you’ve betrayed me. The church is your mistress. You spend more time with her than you spend with me. I felt so rejected. We were going to be ministry partners; however, you continually do things with others instead of me. Do you know how sad I feel? It’s not supposed to be this way.
(This is when Julie started crying.)
I’ve been so afraid. Remember when you were out of town and that man got on the roof and called on his cell phone to say that he was going to get me? And you were nowhere around. Do you know how lonely I feel? I sit home alone night after night while you are out with one church activity or another. I’m afraid of what our future will look like if it looks anything like our past. I’m not sure I can make it...
(Now I began crying.) I began to realize just how much hurt I had laid on her.
Do you know how devalued I feel? Everything revolves around you. I’m not even there.”
The more she shares her pain, the more I sense just how deeply I’ve hurt her.
At this point, it is time to experience James 5:16: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed.”
Healing means that the relationship is restored.
Healing means that we work to restore trust.
Admitting wrongdoing builds trusts—covering up wrong erodes it.
An honest apology builds trust—excuses erode it.
Changed behavior builds trusts—repeated wrongdoing erodes it.
Comforting may now be appropriate. This means that we may say things like, “I’m so sorry you’ve been through such a painful time. It breaks my heart to see you in so much despair. I know you’ve been hurting deeply, and life and relationships are not supposed to be this way. I’m so sorry.”
By the way, after you’ve made your apologetic confession you may want to ask, “Are there other ways that I have hurt you that I’m not seeing?” If so, share them with me. I’d like to get them right with God and you.” Then, work through the process again.
Well, Sara, I hope this helps. If you have more questions, please let me know.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
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