When I was in eleventh grade, the entire high school was summoned to the gym for what can be fairly described as an exercise in mass hypnosis.
There was a young woman in the gym whom the principal introduced as a special speaker. She was special alright – in the course of about 30 minutes, she managed to take a motivational speech and single-handedly turn it into a tent revival meeting that probably lasted an hour longer than what the school originally allotted.
Her speech was an intense exploration of how miserable it is for some people to be in high school, the lengths people go to fit in, and the lengths others go to exclude them. With each thought she shared, I found myself believing that everything she had to say was Gospel, that something had to be done about the high school clique culture immediately.
The climax of her talk consisted of her playing the song, “The Greatest Love of All,” by Whitney Houston, which, by the way, was pretty uncool by my junior year; but no matter – she was so good that by the end of the song, half of the school was bawling. That was when she did her altar call and invited students to come to the microphone and apologize for the ways they had been unkind to fellow classmates. I never would’ve imagined the response.
A Tent Revival
Jocks, preps, cheerleaders, band members – people of all social strata – began coming down to the front and confessing their sins against one another. The confessors, male and female, broke down as they spoke; and then we all broke down with them.
I, too, got caught up in the hysteria and took the microphone to confess my sins against a fellow student I had picked on since fifth grade. I felt very sincere when I did so, and when my tearful apology was over, he came up and gave me a hug. It was such a relief to finally receive atonement for my offenses, to be redeemed from the curse of all I had done to one of the smartest, most creative kids in the Petal school system.
But after the gym emptied and we all went back to our classes, the eventually truth sank in: saying apologies didn’t break habits; it couldn’t magically rehabilitate a person’s character; and it couldn’t change who we were. Cliques quickly reassembled, offenses came back to life, and I could hardly look my bullied classmate in the eyes when I saw him.
Real Apologies, Real Change
Apologies are tricky things, because if we’re not careful, they easily become strategies we use to make ourselves feel better or silence offended parties. It’s hard to know how sincere our apologies are though, because we usually gauge their sincerity by the intensity of our feelings when we’re offering them. However, the Apostle Paul wrote that “[g]odly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” while “worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV, emphasis added). That is, real apologies are rooted in a heart attitude that results in real change.
If we really want to know whether our apologies mean anything, we should first ask ourselves why we’re offering the apology. If it’s to minister to our nagging sense of guilt or to hurry the other person into getting over the offense, then all we’re doing is manipulating another person. But don’t worry – if you’re not sure whether your heart is in the right place, the proof will be found in what we do after we apologize. Will we actually change our actions and replace the offensive conduct with loving conduct? If not, rest assured, we were just blowing smoke with our words of contrition. Therefore, before we apologize and agree to change our behavior, we might want to stop and “count the cost” to see whether we’re serious about following through with any accompanying promises to change (Luke 14:28-30). I know, that’s heavy.
For those of you who, like me, struggle with offering real apologies and the change that ought to accompany them, be encouraged. This frustrating area of character development presents a unique opportunity to present our helpless, broken selves to Jesus and pray something like this: “Lord, I’m sorry for being so pathetic at true repentance (at least I think I’m sorry for it); but either way, You’re the one who said that Your ‘strength is made perfect in [my] weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). Well, I’m really weak in this area, so I invite You to give me the strength I need to apologize when I’m wrong and to change in a meaningful way.”
It’s hard for me to imagine that the God of the universe won’t be happy to work with us so that the answer to that prayer becomes a reality in our lives and the lives of those who have to deal with our imperfections.