The Problem with Empty Apologies
As Christians, we get that we must forgive other people. If we do not, God will not forgive us our sins, so the stakes are high. There are people in our lives, however, who are insincere when they say they are sorry for doing harmful deeds or saying hurtful words. They may be repeat offenders who keep doing the same wrong things again and again and then try to fix things with an apology. Forgiving them is very challenging.
So how are Christians supposed to respond?
Some people think that forgiveness is all that is needed and the victim should just “get over it.” They may pressure the victim to act as if nothing had happened. Under this kind of pressure, the victims may feel if they are being judged as having a wrong attitude towards the transgressors, even though the victims have probably done nothing wrong. Victims may fear that people will think they are being unforgiving or hateful if they chose not to accept the apology and hold the transgressor at arm’s length.
The problem is that sin has consequences and impacts a relationship whether the victim decides to forgive or not. Sin could involve a crossing of personal boundaries, a violation of trust by a friend or loved one, or hurtful remarks. Victims have the right to do whatever they need to do to protect themselves from the transgressors, even if it means cutting off or limiting a relationship.
The nature of forgiveness
Forgiveness is a necessary step for every Christian, no matter what the offence. I recently received an apology from an acquaintance. He made a number of hurtful remarks that questioned my sincerity as a Christian and criticizing my ability to serve in various ministries.
When I forgave the person, I was able to see him at church without feeling resentment and hatred stirring inside of me, or plots for revenge. I also felt sure that God was pleased that I had pardoned him.
He had, however, destroyed my trust in him. I did not want to speak to him beyond a required greeting or be around him. I was wary and afraid that he would hurt me again. I am willing to keep an open mind as to whether his apology was sincere, but in my heart, I believed that it was not. I think that he had ulterior motives for apologizing to me. His apology came months after the hurt after some pressure from other people.
I do believe that people can change, however. Now that a lot of time has passed, I am keeping an open mind about this person. I am willing to look for the fruits of true sorrow, and allow him to try to rebuild my trust in him. My God is a God of mercy, and I can do no less.
Why transgressors apologize
When someone sincerely apologizes, they not only admit to wrongdoing, they commit themselves to change. They promise not to do it again. Empty apologies, on the other hand, are offered to serve the transgressor not the victim.
Transgressors may make empty apologies because they have something to lose. They fear that people will think badly of them if they do not say they are sorry.
They may lie to keep friendships or relationships with their mates. If they have a position in the church or in a ministry and transgress against a member or ministry-co-worker, they may fear losing their position if they do not admit their fault.
The transgressors may also apologize to be able to hold on to their ministry and look good in the eyes of their superiors.
Some people set themselves up as enemies by lying out of hearts full of malice (Psalm 8-9).
We Christians need to be alert and cautious about these people. These transgressors will say or do anything to fulfill their own agenda. God hates people with lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22-34).
Some transgressors carry on offending others repeatedly and think that all they need to do is to apologize to escape accountability. Some Christians think that an empty apology is enough, and that the victim should re-instate their trust and overlook the harm done. If the victims do not comply, some well-meaning Christians make the victims feel guilty if they struggle to trust the transgressor or keep them at arms length.
Although forgiveness is a necessary step for Christians, trust is not. For example, a wife is continually verbally or physically abused by her husband. He hits her, and then apologizes the next day with flowers and a sparkling bit of jewelry. The transgressor is using the apology for his own selfish purposes – to force his wife to carry on in his marriage with no consequences for his behavior.
How friends and supporters can help
- Be supportive if someone decides to end a relationship or their marriage because of issues such as substance abuse, physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Do not judge them if they decide to cut off contact with transgressors
- Assure the victims that whatever happened was not their fault
- Make the church a safe place – a victim may need to have the abuser banned from attending the victim’s congregation
The problem is that the wife has already had her trust violated – her trust that her husband would treat her with respect and love. Trust is something that is earned and not just automatically given. Someone who has been offended can be as unyielding and harder to be won than a walled city (Proverbs 18:12).
If the transgressor shows no signs of acknowledging their wrongdoing, repentance, or a willingness to change their behavior, they cannot be expect that their victims will trust them. An empty apology is like a lie that God hates.
Victims may have doubts whether apologies are sincere or empty. They can chose to give the transgressor the benefit of the doubt, but want to limit their time with the person or end a relationship. The perpetrators’ words and actions over time will show whether or not they are being honest.