by Lincoln Sayger
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Something we often forget in our dealings with other people is that our interactions and communications serve to bind us together in communities. So, it should not be surprising to discover that the purpose of apologies and forgiveness is not solely, or even primarily, to get the offender off the hook. The central principle we must understand is that both apology and forgiveness are tools of reconciliation. Neither forgiveness nor apology removes the consequences of our actions. But they can, if used properly, function as they are intended, to restore a relationship broken by some action or word. It is important, if we are going to use these tools properly, to understand that they are not interchangeable. Each has its place, its proper use, and its related concepts. I will examine each of these, in turn.
The time to give an apology is when something happened that caused some displeasure, pain, injury, or other damage, which was not the result of sin (a word which is here defined as intentional wrongdoing). Examples include accidentally bumping into someone, repeating something you didn't realize was supposed to be private or a surprise, and failing to accurately foresee the consequences of an action done in good faith. The main distinction of actions that are appropriate for giving an apology is that the person who did the action was not aware of the harm it would cause and did not intend any harm by doing it.
It is very important to examine your actions and judge properly where there is fault. To do this, you must examine your motivations and the information you had before you took the damaging action, and examine them thoroughly. Even if there was no malicious intent, it is possible that you can alter your behavior in future to avoid making the same mistake again. Keep in mind that apology is another word for explanation. If you can justify your action or explain why it was not an intentional misdeed, then it must be one in which there was no malice or sin. An apology is not appropriate for a sinful action. Actions for which apology is appropriate usually require no recompense. But remember that there may still be a corrective action or care you can take in future, even if no recompense is needful.
The time to ask for forgiveness is when there was sin committed. Intentional wrongdoing cannot be justified or explained away. Rather, the person must take responsibility for making the decisions to commit the sinful actions. Then, the person can ask for forgiveness. It is important to keep in mind that asking forgiveness does not impose any duty on the wronged party to grant it, and even where it is granted, forgiveness does not erase consequences, which may include duties, loss of trust or position of trust, pain (if the action caused a disease or permanent damage to the sinner), or other obligations, such as recompense.
Imagine a necklace. If I unlatch the necklace, that is an action, whether intentional or accidental, that causes no permanent damage. This kind of action should not require restitution or recompense, for it can be mended without much difficulty. The necklace can be latched again easily. If, on the other hand, I pull on the necklace until it breaks, that is an action that does permanent damage. This kind of action should require restitution or recompense, commensurate with how much effort is required to restore the necklace to its former condition or better. A break that can be repaired by replacing one broken link should need less recompense than a break that requires replacing or reforging a significant portion of the necklace.
An apology is an explanation of why something unintended happened, a justification for why the actions were not sin. It should generally run along these lines: "I'm sorry that [consequence happened]. I did not intend for that to happen. [Explanation of factors, if appropriate] I'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again." Not that the first time an unintended consequence occurs, it is not sin. However, depending on the level of predictability and the severity of the consequences, it may be sin to fail to take measures to prevent that consequence from happening again. Just apologizing every time something happens, without trying to avoid that consequence in the future, is recklessness, and may be sin, especially if it happens with great frequency. Note, also, that unintended consequences arising from the willful impairment of your judgment are the result of a willful act of recklessness and, unless their severity is very low (e.g., embarassment, minor fright), probably constitute sin because of the inciting action that reduced your judgment. This is why, for example, there are warnings in the Bible about consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.
Asking for forgiveness is different. You shouldn't explain why you did what you did, because that makes it sound like you're trying to justify your actions and turn them into an unintended consequence for which an apology is appropriate. Instead, the request should go something like, "I have wronged you. I did [specific sin], and that was wrong. I shouldn't have done that, and I recognize that (now). I will take responsibility for my actions and make whatever recompense is necessary to be reconciled with you. Will you please forgive me?" Note that, whether the wronged party chooses to forgive you or not, it is never appropriate to follow up a refusal with, "But I asked forgiveness, you have to forgive me." When you have sinned, you don't get to dictate when (or even if) the person you wronged will forgive you. Even after you have paid or done recompense, the wronged party is not obligated to you to grant forgiveness. Forgiveness is always unmerited, and you cannot earn it. It must be given as a gift, separate from any consideration of recompense, though this does not affect the duty the wrongdoer has to offer and/or perform the recompense appropriate to the sin. Recompense should always be independent, given whether forgiveness is extended or not.
The Mosaic Law defined several examples of restitution, including:
These measures may be a good starting point for considering what an appropriate recompense might be. Of course, it is best to avoid wrongdoing in the first place, but asking forgiveness or apologizing for an accident is not enough, if physical damage or severe loss in terms of emotion, opportunity, reputation, or time, among others, followed the wrong.
The Mosaic Law required that a man who seduced or forced a maiden should pay her family and marry her, and I think this example deserves some additional consideration. As I see it, this is not limited to the change of status for the woman from unmarriable to married. A man who takes a woman as though she were his wife owes to her all that he would owe to a wife he had married properly: status, protection, affection, care, provision, support, and consideration, among others. Taking responsibility for something you've done wrong may require recompense that is ongoing and difficult. Far better to have acted appropriately, to begin with. Even though our society has become more accepting of casual relationships, the example is worthy of consideration, and the principle can be applied more broadly. Consider, for example, a drunk driver who kills a father, making his children fatherless and his wife a widow. Ongoing recompense would be proper in that case, as well.
Even unintended damages should be recompensed. For example, if you knocked over someone's coffee mug, and it broke, you owe them a new mug.
Society needs reconciliation to function smoothly. Reconciliation needs responsibility and truth to be complete. Responsibility needs a distinction in truth between unintentional and intentional wrongdoing. If we put these principles into practice, we can have a happier, healthier society.
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