How to apologize effectively: responsibility, restitution, repentance

One of my friends recommended this book “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married” by Gary Chapman, so I got it and read it this weekend. The book re-capped one of his other books about the 5 languages of apologies or something.

Here’s a re-cap of his five languages of apologies.

Here are the two that I want to emphasize:

Apology Language #3: Making Restitution

In the public arena, our emphasis upon restitution is based upon our sense of justice. The one who commits the crime should pay for the wrongdoing. In contrast, in the private sphere of family and other close relationships, our desire for restitution is almost always based upon our need for love. After being hurt deeply, we need the reassurance that the person who hurt us still loves us.

“How could they love me and do that?” is the question that lingers in our minds. The words “I’m sorry; I was wrong” may not be enough.

For some people, restitution is their primary apology language. For them the statement, “It is not right for me to have treated you that way,” must be followed with “What can I do to show you that I still care about you?” Without this effort at restitution, this person will question the sincerity of the apology. They will continue to feel unloved even though you may have said, “I am sorry; I was wrong.” They wait for the reassurance that you genuinely love them.

The question, then, is how do we make restitution in the most effective way? Since the heart of restitution is reassuring the spouse or family member that you genuinely love him or her, it is essential to express restitution in the love language of the other person.

[…]If restitution is the primary apology language of an individual, then this becomes the most important part of the apology. “I’m sorry; I was wrong” will never be taken as sincere if these words are not accompanied by a sincere effort at restitution. They wait for the assurance that you still genuinely love them. Without your effort to make amends, the apology will not have the desired results of forgiveness.

Apology Language #4: Genuinely Repenting

The word repentance means “to turn around” or “to change one’s mind.” In the context of an apology, it means that an individual realizes that his or her present behavior is destructive. The person regrets the pain he or she is causing the other person, and he chooses to change his behavior.

Without genuine repentance, the other languages of apology may fall on deaf ears. What people who’ve been hurt want to know is, “Do you intend to change, or will this happen again next week?”

How then do we speak the language of repentance?

  • It begins with an expression of intent to change. When we share our intention to change with the person we have offended, we are communicating to them what is going on inside of us. They get a glimpse of our heart—and this often is the language that convinces them we mean what we say.
  • The second step down the road of repentance is developing a plan for implementing change. Often apologies fail to be successful in restoring the relationship because there is no plan for making positive change.
  • The third step down the road of repentance is implementing the plan. Following through with the plan gives evidence to the offended party that your apology was sincere.

Most people do not expect perfection after an apology, but they do expect to see effort.

Thus, expressing your desire to change and coming up with a plan is an extremely important part of an apology to this person. Inviting the offended person to help you come up with a plan for change is perhaps the best way to effectively show repentance.

I think this is somewhat useful, but I wanted to add some of my own thoughts to make it more practical.

Here are some practical tips that I recommend to someone who has done something morally wrong and who wants to apologize.

To fix the problem you need more than talk

To me, the only thing that needs an apology is breaking a moral rule – you can’t beat someone up for just making a mistake. Whenever someone breaks a moral rule with me, like disrespecting me or being selfish, then I pick out a book for them to read and ask them to read it and then write something about how what they learned in the book applies to what they did to me. I don’t pick very long books! But I do this for a very important reason.

The very important reason is that I don’t trust people who just agree with me. I don’t trust people’s words. If someone is really sorry about something, then I want them to read something that describes the moral rule that they broke, and explains what place the moral rule has in some plan for achieving some greater goal. Let me give an example.

Suppose that I am friends with a young lady who wants me to help her to get her atheist uncle, who has a degree in physics, to consider whether Christian theism might not be true. I accept her quest and begin to negotiate with Dr. Michael Strauss, a particle physicist who does research on the top quark at Fermilab, and also teaches physics at the University of Oklahoma – Norman. I contact Dr. Strauss, and contact Lawrence Krauss, the atheist physicist, and I set up a debate between them at the local university. I notify her of my plan, and she promises to bring her uncle to the debate.

The day of the debate comes and it goes off without a hitch – Strauss demolishes Krauss, and Krauss cries for his mommy. The audience laughs at Krauss and he runs away sobbing into the night, clutching his Darwin doll tightly. I beam with delight at a plan perfectly executed, and then look around for the young lady and her uncle, so that we can all go out for a late dinner with Dr. Strauss. But she and her uncle are nowhere to be found! I rush around the auditorium frantically, but to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I call her cell phone.

She answers. I say “where are you? where is your evil uncle Dawkins? The debate is over and we won!”. She says “Oh, I totally forgot. The worship leader at the local mega church had a better idea anyway. She invited me over to her church with my uncle to try snake-handling instead.” Me: “You did what???!!!” She (excited): “Yes, this is a lot more fun than a stuffy debate, and my uncle is about to play patty-cake with a harmless rattlesnake, and… uh oh”. Me: “Oh no…” She: “Um, I’ll call you back. I need to make a call right now.“. Click.

Wow, that’s pretty awful.

So here’s what I would expect from her by way of apology.

  1. Read something on science apologetics as a make-up assignment. Something like Edgar Andrews’ “Who Made God?“.
  2. Listen to Dr. Michael Strauss’ lecture on science apologetics, which he delivered at Stanford University.
  3. Go back to the uncle and sit down with him and watch Dr. Michael Strauss’ lecture on science apologetics from Stanford University, which is up on Youtube.
  4. When the lecture is over, talk with the uncle about his remaining questions, and be available should he think of any more questions.

This would make up for all the work I put into the event because it fixes the problem, and it makes sure that it will never happen again.

The goals of this apology is not just to hear the words “I’m sorry”. It’s not even just about making me feel better. I think the real customer of a mistake like this is God, who is not well served by ineffective Christians. My goal is to prepare her for future evangelism, and for future nurturing of any children she might have. The only way to convince someone to take the right course of action the next time is to change their mind between the time they failed and the next time they try again. There is no way to change how a person behaves unless they convince themselves by reading about the issues, on their own time, through their own effort.

For more on how beliefs change, see this lecture by J.P. Moreland, entitled “Love Your God With All Your Mind“.

4 thoughts on “How to apologize effectively: responsibility, restitution, repentance”

  1. Wintery, you described a bit of an “extreme” situation, in that in the example you had gone to a lot of trouble so her “blow off” was all the more troubling.

    However, not every transgression against one another is of that level, and oftentimes making a big deal out of it does more harm than good. I love Chapman’s point that follows his description of the languages of apology, where he goes into the importance of forgiveness, and most especially his point that forgiveness is a choice. Wow, how true! What a great thing to keep in mind. I like to think of it as not “love” is a choice, but that love is the result of many daily micro-level choices, that result in the macro level “love” growing out of each and every one of those choices. Remembering to choose to forgive is a big one (and one that we will encounter often).

    I believe a strong marriage is one where both partners are quick to apologize and quick to forgive. There’s no room for selfish pride or grudges in a marriage. Whereas mutual responsibility for one’s own faults, and forgiveness for one’s spouses result in reconciliation and growth and a stronger bond.


  2. This is a good site.. I have a problem. I have ruined my relationship with my uncle and i need to make this right. I wake up everyday and it bothers me. Does anyone know of a creative way to apologize. I have basically done everything to try and mend this relationship. Please help me??

    Thanks, James


  3. … Are you really seeking to find out whether your friend is sorry? Sounds to me like you are dolling out punishments or seeking power. Only time and further actions can actually prove whether the person is sorry or not…


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