When Your Apology is Not Accepted
- Ronnie Martin
- 2016 18 Jul
The End of It All
It had been two years. Two years since I had seen or spoken to him. I had tried my best to move on. Things had ended badly, and it seemed as if the best thing for both of us was to break ties and carry on with little or no contact. We had both sinned against the other person, and both of us probably thought the other person’s sin was worse. Mistakes had been made. Untruths had been spoken. There’d been gossip and slander. Varying degrees of anger, hurt, and betrayal had all been well documented. It probably goes down as the worst relational breakdown I’ve ever experienced.
After a couple of years, there’d been a lot of proverbial water under the bridge. The internal battle I had waged repeatedly made my insides feel like they’d been scraped and primered to death, but a fresh coat of paint had never been applied. I prayed that God would humble and reshape my heart so I could extend some godly, gospel-shaped forgiveness. I’m sure I didn’t pray often enough for it, though. Frankly, I wondered why he hadn’t contacted me, while at the same time acknowledging that I hadn’t contacted him either. I was bothered by the nagging, scratchy irritant it had festered into, even though the minute-to-minute pain had lessened somewhat. There was a time or two when I thought about reaching out and offering an attempt at some dialogue, but I always shrank back in the end.
And then one day everything changed. It was like the light that seeps through the window blinds at dawn after a stormy and thunderous night. I was approached by a mutual friend who mentioned some of the tension he thought still existed between the two of us. It was a peculiar insight, given that it had been two years since I had seen this other person or traded words. But it was in this moment that God opened the door a tiny crack and I was extended a clear opportunity for the chance to reconcile. So I lifted the silver lid of the MacBook Air I’m currently typing on and sent off a short but inviting e-mail, not having the slightest notion of what might transpire.
Less than a week later, I found myself sitting at a sticky, sugar-coated Formica table at a doughnut shop, staring into the eyes of a former friend and forever brother in Christ, praying how I might be able to change our status back to friends. A feeling of depletion had washed over me even before we began conversing. My agenda was simply to put out one hand and wave a white flag with the other, so I explained to him how God had opened a door to repent and ask forgiveness. I hadn’t dreamed up what his response might be because I wasn’t sure it mattered how he responded. I just needed to do everything I could to pursue reconciliation.
The sun started to descend by the time we parted ways. There were a couple of tense, awkward moments that tried to creep in like a trail of chilly air through a half-closed door, but I let them all pass. Like any dreaded reunion, I chose my words carefully, listened intently, and spoke slowly. It wasn’t quite the ending I would’ve chosen, but I wasn’t given the choice, so I left with a handshake and a smile. This wasn’t about airing further grievances or trying to claim any kind of small or insignificant victory from a battle fought years ago. This was about repenting of the only sin any of us can ever repent of: our own.
If I’m being honest (and there’s no use writing a book full of lies), I walked away feeling as though the whole thing had been a fail. It was obvious from his expressions, body language, and the tone of his voice that he had not received the repentance he wanted from me. I felt as if there was only so much I could do. I wanted to own my sin, take responsibility for my actions, and repent of the sins I could truthfully repent of, but apparently this was nothing more than an unsatisfactory attempt from my friend’s point of view.
God calls us to repentance, but it doesn’t come signed with a money-back guarantee if we don’t receive the reconciliation we think should be part of the package deal. The fact that we still see as many irreconcilable differences causing divisions in our churches is shame-worthy proof that reconciliation is not automatic. The question we need to ask and carefully consider is what happens when it’s not? What happens when we repent and there is no celebratory moment of tear-filled reciprocation? Worse than that, what if the injured party never accepts the sincerity or validity of our apology and stomps away in resolute defiance? Or maybe she does accept your humble-hearted expression, but you find that the friendship never quite returns to former glories. Do we continue to try to restart the engine of a vehicle connected to a lifeless and uncharged battery? Or do we pack up our relational bags, move on, let bygones be bygones, and pray that God removes the bite of enduring bitterness?
First and foremost, God calls sinners to the message He sent His Son to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). The timeless call of that has not diminished even an inch from its heavy and heralded glory. Before we attempt to repent to any Christian we’ve reparably or irreparably wounded, the matter of first importance is whether our hearts have been lowered from the heights of our haughtiness and laid low before the throne of grace. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Behind our repentance has to be a grief that’s been manifested by God alone and filled into the cracked recesses of our broken hearts. It’s a grief born from the suffering of Christ that only those who have experienced this godly death to sin have any hope of experiencing.
So do you have godly sorrow for your sin against the God who already laid it on His sorrowful Son on that blackest of days? Even the enviably titled man-after-God’s-own-heart, King David, who saw only a foreshadowing of the suffering Savior after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, proclaimed, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). We’re not ignorant enough to imply that other people can’t be sinned against heartily and with unquestionable harm, but our primary offense is committed against God. Understanding this sobering reality is what enables us to approach others with trembled speech, seeking repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Because Jesus bore God’s wrath against our unrepentant sin on a blood-soaked cross, we are filled with a great and grace-fueled compulsion to do whatever it takes to make peace with others when we sin grievously against them.
The hesitation comes from believing we might not receive reconciliation. And in these moments we find ourselves putting all our fear in the offended party rather than our faith in the sufficiency of God’s gospel.
So what happens if the people we’ve hurt don’t receive our repentance? This is the time to look back at our own sin and remember the times we have failed to offer forgiveness and how God was patient with us, how He didn’t judge us but let us slowly come into the revealing and exposing light of conviction and grace. It’s important for us to have that same kind of godly patience and kindness with others. If the other person is truly a follower of Christ, it means Christ is doing a work that may include your repentance as the means for producing a heart of forgiveness. A lack of immediate reconciliation is another opportunity for us to trust God’s timing in a situation that He is intricately and effectively shaping for His glory.
What if our apology is never accepted? Sometimes our sin against others is so grievous that we may never get our desired response or reconciliation from them. Maybe it was a sin so personally damaging that the only counsel this person received to get through it was to distance themselves from you forever. It’s important that we understand that and own it. Maybe you spread a piece of gossip about another person that destroyed other relationships they had. Maybe it was the abandonment or neglect of a friendship that felt like a betrayal too painful to come back from. Maybe you weren’t there for someone who depended on you as he was going through a painful season in his life. Sin has poisonous consequences. Once the venom of destructiveness has been released into the heart of the victim, a form of internal death can be an inevitability.
What God calls us to in these situations is remorse and repentance. If reconciliation never comes, we may forever grieve over the injuries we caused, but we can be grateful that God has forgiven us and can look forward to the day when there is no more mourning or crying.
[Editor’s Note: Content reprinted from THE BRIDE(ZILLA) OF CHRIST: WHAT TO DO WHEN GOD’S PEOPLE HURT GOD’S PEOPLE Copyright © 2016 by Ted Kluck & Ronnie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.]
Ronnie Martin is an internationally known Dove Award-nominated recording artist with more than twenty album credits spanning three decades. He is lead pastor of Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
Publication date: July 18, 2016