Three motives fuel almost everything I do. First, I want to. I have a desire to do some of the things I do. Second, I know I should. This category covers all of the things I do because I am acting responsibly, whether I want to or not. Third, I must. This last group of things I do captures me because of its urgency - again, whether I want to or not. Of course, some things I do fall outside of those three categories, but desires, responsibilities, and urgency drive most of what I do.
Along the way, in the midst of following those three motives, I have offended people. Sometimes it happened in my role as a minister. But, sometimes it happens in other roles, as well. As a husband, I have offended my wife. As a father, I have offended my children. I have never planned to offend someone. I have found myself as surprised as the individuals I have offended.
Offenses stir a range of feelings: anger, hurt, sadness, etc. When offended, people often react. People become offended by different actions and statements and react differently when it happens. Immediately, they may turn red, start to cry, go silent, or suddenly react in a loud, forceful, defensive voice. Interacting with other people is risky.
When I realize or discover that I have offended someone, I can take several paths. I can ignore their feelings and dismiss the whole ordeal. I can justify myself and criticize their reaction and feelings. Or, I can humble myself and apologize. That last option is often the most difficult and fruitful approach. It is never easy for me.
When I pastored in Texas, I invited Blake Coffee, president of Christian Unity Ministries, to come to our church and conduct a “Unity Conference.” He taught five biblical principles of unity. And, he devoted an entire session to apologizing. He trained the congregation and me. Then, we paired up with another person and practiced with each other. I learned to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” Blake taught me to apologize for the offense, even if I thought I had been right about the things I said or did.
At each session of that four-day conference, attendance increased. People in town talked about what was happening at our church. The highest attendance was at the last session, not at the first one. The Bible’s principles about unity attracted interest. To this day, I still share those principles with others.
I learned that apologizing takes real humility. Many people can tell whether apologies are fake or sincere. Sincerity follows humility. Without humility, apologies are cold, terse, and hollow. Apologies with humility often take place in a person’s living room, not hallways or parking lots. They should take a little time. And, sometimes, people extend forgiveness for offenses slowly or not at all. Healing may not be instant.
I, and other leaders, occasionally avoid humbling ourselves because we “know we were right” or because “we don’t want to compromise our position of leadership.” Coffee directly asked me in a personal conversation, “Are you depending upon your actions and your efforts to make you a great leader; or, are you depending upon God and the work of the Holy Spirit to do that?” He pointed out that men of God should allow God and His Spirit to work in themselves and others. They trust God. Essentially, he was asking me if I was building my kingdom or God’s. I have never forgotten his question. He also asked me, “Do you want to strengthen your leadership by offending people?” I did not.
Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). He also wrote, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). In Hebrews, the Bible says, “Strive for peace with everyone,” and “See to it … that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Scripture instructs Christians to take initiative and pursue peace. It instructs them to address things, like offenses, that can become a “root of bitterness” and affect lots of people.
Over the years, I have learned that God’s wisdom will guide me to do the right thing at the right time in the right manner. Failure in one of those elements has often caused the offenses that I have inflicted upon others. I have been wrong. I have exercised bad timing. I have used the wrong manner. In any place that I have acted contrary to God’s wisdom, I have room for humility.
So, I have taken deacons with me to homes of hurt church members. At home, I have ventured into humility alone. In either situation, I have admitted what I did and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” Often, tears accompany humility. I find that uncomfortable. I did not want to hurt them. But, in their living room, I discovered how deeply I have done so.
While some people claim apologizing is a sign of weakness, I discovered that real apologies take great effort and require great internal strength. Humility is not an adventure for the weak, but for the strong. My apologies have healed relationships and kept people coming to church. They have kept my family connected.
I’m thankful that someone taught me about humility and how to apologize. In the web of desires, responsibilities and urgency, I make mistakes. Every believer does. Humility and apologies matter.