Asking for Forgiveness (Pt. 2)

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Denise Mainquist
July 28, 2021

Last week I introduced the activity of asking for forgiveness and some of the nuances involved. Today I conclude by considering some of the struggles of this strangely difficult human activity.  

A sincere apology can go a long way toward helping both parties forgive. Someone once asked me, on the spur of the moment, to forgive them. When I asked what this person felt they had done to me, the reply was, “I don’t know but you seem so angry.” 

Notice there was no apology or ownership of any part of what may have happened in the relationship and the entire burden was pushed back onto me. There was also no willingness to have a conversation about what may have happened. 

There may be times when we truly do not know what we have done to offend another person, and if that is the case, we should be honest and say that we do not know and be willing to listen to what the other person has to say. When a deeper conversation is possible, we may find that the dialogues in our heads are not based in reality.

I did not immediately say, “I forgive you,” to the person who approached me because it would have been cheap words with no meaning. But this bothered me for years. Even though I had worked very hard to forgive this person, even prior to this exchange, I wondered if I had missed the point of forgiveness. 

I felt guilty for not saying some quick words of absolution to this person. It took me a very long time to understand that this person wanted to assuage their own guilt by quickly letting herself off the hook and by giving me her baggage to carry.

No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Proverbs 28:13 NRSV

What if there is an apology but it seems insincere? What if there are promises to change but they never happen? We are still required to forgive the other person, but we do not need to accept their apology. 

Not accepting an apology is not a judgment or holding a grudge, but it is potentially a gate to a path for change. Issuing an apology, even an insincere one, is a conversation starter. If an apology is quickly accepted, it stops the path toward conversion. 

The person issuing the apology will not change and you will likely carry the other person’s baggage because you understand that nothing has changed and there is much left unsaid.

Instead of accepting an apology, which is closer to forgiveness, it may be appropriate to acknowledge the apology. Acknowledging an apology simply means, “I hear you, thank you for apologizing.” This is a very good response to an apology, even an insincere one because it helps the offender understand that they played a part in the situation. 

Responding to an insincere apology with, “It’s too late to apologize,” or “Apology refused,” is petty and nonproductive because it also stops the other person from heading down the path of true conversion. 

By acknowledging the apology, you may now be able to have a conversation with the other person and help them to understand that there is more work to do to amend the situation. This is a good time to express what would amend the situation from your perspective. What expectations need to be met for this situation to be healed? 

This is the time for complete honesty, for you to speak from your heart. Remember that there is no such thing as brutal honesty, which is often an excuse to be cruel. This is not about punishment. This is about helping the other person create a better relationship with you.

One other important thing to consider before approaching someone to ask for forgiveness is that relationships change over time. Sometimes people change, sometimes the nature of the relationship changes and sometimes the relationship loses its value. 

If someone becomes distant it may be because they have changed or are struggling with something personally. It is self-serving to approach someone with an apology if no specific event occurred to damage the relationship. It is natural to miss someone we care about, and natural to want to re-establish a lost connection. 

Reaching out and letting the person know you care and are thinking about them is a kind thing to do and may open a conversation. But resist the temptation to issue a general apology. Leave the door open and wait patiently for God to work.

Denise Mainquist, Certified Spiritual Director

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