There was no way I was going to apologize.
I was in high school and my 10th grade Honors English class was about to start. This year we had Mr. Cox, by all accounts a fine man with a reputation for being nice to his students. He wasn’t a pushover by any means, but he was the kind of teacher you could go up and talk to without feeling intimidated. Maybe that’s why I felt more free to speak my mind. Mr. Cox had arranged the chairs in the classroom in a semi-circle, three rows deep. I sat in the front row with Quincy, Bryan, and about five other students. A few of us were talking before the bell rang and I had casually rested my foot on Bryan’s chair as he had done many times to me and to other people. Out of nowhere, Bryan comes rushing up to me and with a snarl in his voice tells me I need to get my foot off of his chair…or else! You’d probably never guess, Bryan was one of my best friends. Especially not if you saw that interchange. I was pretty taken aback, but my foot stayed right where it was. “Are you kidding me?” I said incredulously. “You put your foot on my chair all the time!” He stood toe-to-toe with me and just said, “Well, I don’t want your dirty foot on my chair.” So now, I definitely wasn’t going to move it. Not if you paid me. But then Mr. Cox called me over to his desk. Taking my foot off the chair wasn’t submission, it was now a necessity so I did and I went over to Mr. Cox’s desk. He said, “I want you to apologize.” For the second time in about two minutes I was shocked to the core (as only a teenager can be). “No way!” I told him. “He does that to me all the time and I never go crazy like he just did.” After going back and forth, Mr. Cox finally just looked at me and said, “Apologize or I’ll have to send you to the office.” To say I was headstrong as a teenager is probably an understatement, so it came as no surprise (to myself anyway) when I said, “Fine, send me to the office.” I don’t know if thought I was being like Rosa Parks, but I wasn’t about to cave when I sat in the seat of righteousness! Mr. Cox just gave in. He shook his head in frustration (apparently he was bluffing) and he said, “Craig, would you please just go and apologize? Sometimes you just have to be the bigger man.” I hate when teachers do that. Appeal to my vanity. I guess he figured if I was sitting in the seat of righteousness, he should take full advantage of it. I mumbled, “I hate being the bigger man.” And I went over and apologized to Bryan. I never did find out what in the world got into Bryan that day, but I did learn an important lesson. Apologies don’t make you weak. They make you strong.
Our pride is what makes us weak.
I’m not talking about the kind of pride you have when achieve a personal milestone or the kind of pride you have for your children for being who they are. I’m talking about the kind of pride that elevates ourselves at the cost of others. The kind of pride that says, “I don’t care who it hurts, I refuse to give in.” That’s the kind of pride that gets in the way of the life God has planned for us. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you please go to Matthew 5 beginning with verse 23. Matthew 5:23. God not only wants us to have a relationship with him, but he wants us to have a relationship with one another. That’s why Jesus told us that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord but the second was to love our neighbor. Jesus goes out of his way to bring together those who society had largely ignored – women, children, foreigners like the Samaritans, people who weren’t Jewish like the Gentiles, people who had jobs that were considered corrupt or dirty like tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus wanted to reach them all, but he knew that pride would get in the way. Our inability to humble ourselves, our unwillingness to compromise, our lack of empathy or compassion would stop us from repairing the broken relationships we have or from starting them in the first place. I believe that’s why he said what he did in our passage this morning.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Don’t even bother coming to worship.
If we can’t even settle the conflicts between us, we shouldn’t come to church. Not as punishment. Not because you wouldn’t be welcome. But because God sees it as that important for us to be reconciled with one another. He would rather we skip worship if that meant we could mend fences with those in our lives we’ve become separated from. This idea of repentance and reconciliation was so important that God sent Jesus into the world. When Jesus talks about us needing to settle matters quickly or we may be thrown into prison, he doesn’t mean a literal prison (although I guess that is a possibility). He’s talking about a prison of our own making. The court, the judge, and the officer he is talking about here are in our minds. If you don’t take the time to make amends with someone you’ve hurt, whether intentionally or otherwise, if you don’t stop to figure out how to make it right then you will be in a prison of your own making.
You might not even notice. You might not even care. But it WILL have an effect on your life.
Whenever two people have a broken relationship it affects everyone around them. Think about parents who get divorced and the kids having to pick one to live with. Or friends getting in a fight and their other friends having to choose which one to stay friends with. Or brothers and sisters having such bitter arguments that their kids who are related don’t even know each other any more. I was listening to This American Life on one of my podcasts recently and they told this story about two brothers who hadn’t seen each other in decades. Literally decades. They hadn’t seen each other in the last 20 years since their mother’s funeral and even then they got into an argument over funeral arrangements. They were so out of touch with each other that the wife of one of the brothers died and the other one didn’t find out for years after it happened. For nearly 40 years they haven’t had anything resembling a relationship. What was interesting was they both obviously craved one. But they never stopped to take a moment to reconcile with one another, to empathize with the other, to find out what was going on with the other person. Had they done so, they might have been able to be there for one another and the pain that each felt throughout their lives might have been avoided or at least healed. It wasn’t until the son of one of the brothers decided to make it his mission to get these two in a room and talk about their separation that they discovered long held beliefs they had were completely wrong. The pain they felt for decades was based on a lie. It makes me sad to hear those kinds of stories, of people who have been so unwilling to sit down at a table with one another that they have missed out on something important in their lives. We can fool ourselves all we want, like these two brothers did, but those pains stick with us and affect our lives in ways we don’t even always realize.
But we are taught that apologies make us weak.
Reconciliation is not as important as being RIGHT! Even if we’re not right. Even if the other person isn’t right. It’s better to be strong than be sorry. Even if it’s not true. I don’t know about you, but one of the first things my dad taught me when he was helping me learn to drive was to never say you were sorry. If you ever got in an accident, you needed to be careful NOT to apologize because it was the same as saying you were wrong and even if you WERE wrong, you shouldn’t say it. He was worried (and rightly so at the time) that saying “sorry” was the equivalent as admitting guilt and if the other person decided to sue you for injury or damages to the car or whatever, you would automatically lose. But that’s no longer true. In the year 2000, the state of California introduced a Evidence Code 1160 which said, “The portion of statements, writings or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence… shall be inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability in a civil action.” What studies have shown is that when people would sincerely apologize to someone else, it would result in “faster settlements and lower demand for damages.” Which flies in the face of what you would think would happen. If someone was accepting responsibility, doesn’t that mean they are admitting guilt? Wouldn’t that make them targets for bigger settlements? But most people are not looking for money. They are looking for reconciliation. They take money and property out of anger and a sense of justice, but when the other person seeks to make things right, that often softens our hearts and we are much more willing to let our anger go. Because of such research 35 states (as of 2010) introduced similar legislation to encourage people to apologize and to offer sympathy in times of stress.
As in all things, there are right ways and wrong ways of offering an apology.
“I’m sorry you’re such a loser” is obviously a bad way to begin. “I’m sorry you can’t take a joke,” is another “sorry, not sorry” approach. But it doesn’t even have to be that blatant. “I’m sorry you took it the wrong way,” seems like an apology but really it’s not because it puts the blame squarely on the other person. The best way to offer a sincere apology is following these three steps: Regret, Responsibility, Remedy. Offer regret for causing harm. It may have been intentional or completely unintentional, but acknowledging that something harmed the person you care about shows empathy. And be specific about what you are apologizing for when you can. It again shows empathy and understanding at the same time. Then accept responsibility. I loved this one example I read. Dr. Liane Davey suggested erring on the side of MORE responsibility instead of less. She gave a workplace example of saying, “I’m sorry the traffic was bad. I probably shouldn’t have scheduled a meeting for this time.” Like you could have caused the traffic. But there’s truth in her statement. Had the meeting been scheduled at a different time, maybe there would have been less traffic. Plus it lets the other person know you understand their situation and in the future they might be more willing to cut you some slack when you make a mistake. Finally, offer a remedy. “I’ll be more aware of your feelings.” “I will take that into account next time.” “I’ll be more careful.” Even simple remedies are meaningful. Dr. Davey even suggests that we should at times apologize even if it isn’t our fault. It not only increases people’s trust in you but makes them more willing to trust you in return. “For example, if a teammate walks over to you in the cafeteria, flops himself down and regales you with a story about a really rough meeting that morning, it can be very valuable to take a moment to say ‘I’m sorry you had such a tough meeting.’ The research shows that this superfluous apology triggers something different and more beneficial than if you simply acknowledge the adverse event with a comment like ‘Wow. You had a tough meeting.’”
We are creatures of community.
It’s the way God designed us and it’s the way God lives. Think about it. The whole idea of the Holy Trinity is three beings in one. It’s just who we are. When we cause rifts in our community, we need to repair them right away. It’s why God keeps trying so hard to bring us back into the fold. It’s why God sent Jesus to be among us, in the hopes that we would return to him. When we are separated from him, we can’t live the life we were created to live. When we have separation in our lives from each other, there is always this underlying unresolved conflict that affects who we are and how we treat others. That’s why it’s so important not to let the sun go down in the midst of conflict as it says in Ephesians. I don’t think Paul literally meant not to let the sun go down, but not to leave things unresolved. To find a way to reconcile as soon as possible. Is there anyone in your life you need to reconcile with? Are there people you have caused harm to? I really want you to pray about it this week. Think about those you may have hurt and pray about offering them an apology. Apologies don’t make us weak, they make us strong because they repair the rifts in our lives that cause us pain. Repentance leads to reconciliation, redemption, and renewal. They lead us down the road to reconciliation which leads to redemption of our relationship and renewal of our faith. Whether or not they accept your apology is another thing, but one that is completely out of your hands. Don’t let that get in the way of doing what YOU need to do. The discipline of being a person who is willing to accept your own responsibility when things go wrong IS something you can do something about. And it will lead you to a richer, more fulfilling life. If it’s this important to God that he would rather you take care of your relationships before coming to him, then it’s an idea worth spending time on. Who knows? It may change your entire life.