I preached a sermon in June about the power of apology—not the defense of Christian faith kind of apology but the gut-wrenching admission of fault we all know too well. At the end of my sermon, I asked the congregation to think of someone or some situation in need of an apology in their lives. I also asked them to apologize and to report back to me about their experience.
I came into this little experiment with assumptions (as every researcher needs a hypothesis). Yet as so often happens, the data surprised me. I thought I’d receive stories about repaired relationships and long-lost friendships renewed. I thought people would tell me about estranged relatives and re-energized marriages. These situations may have occurred, but people didn’t tell me about them. Instead, I received stories of people apologizing to themselves—and not one but multiple stories. I was floored. Throughout my sermon writing and delivery, and even as I waited for the responses, this option didn’t even occur to me. It’s a good reminder the Spirit works between my mouth and the hearer’s ears—and thank God for that.
I received a gorgeous email from a woman who went home that Sunday after worship and took out a JC Penney photo of herself at age two. I don’t even want to try to summarize her words as they are so heart felt and beautiful. So here they are as she wrote them:
I talked to that beautiful child. I told her she was beautiful and smart and kind and strong. I told her she didn't deserve some of the things that have happened to her. I told her that her faith was strong and that she was alive because of that faith. I told her that the faith that her parents lovingly taught her would save her life time and time again. I told her how smart she is because she believes that God provides. Then, I told her I was sorry. That she didn't deserve to be treated so harshly by her adult self. Too much blaming. Too much shaming. Things in life happen. Some people go through life fairly uneventfully and some people have a different journey all together. In this beautiful little girl's life, she would have many struggles and she would suffer tremendously. But, she came through it all. I told the little girl that, from now on, she would be treated with the respect that she deserved. Because, as it turns out, she's a pretty great human being. She's not the reason so many bad things happened. They just happen. And, God provides.
And if that wasn’t enough, she ended her story with this:
I got the sense that she forgave me. Praise God for that gift. I think that it has taken me so long to apologize because I wasn't sure if she would forgive me at all. And, how would I live with that? But, as always, fear is not real. All is well with my soul.
Thank God for the sighs of the Spirit.
I’m reminded of Brené Brown’s assertion in her book Daring Greatly that our ability to love others directly hinges on our own self-compassion. Connecting with others requires connecting with ourselves first. God’s grace gives us the gift of a precious identity—as beloved children of God. When we can see ourselves as God sees us, it moves us to see those around us in the same way. Maybe true apology to others can’t happen until we’ve apologized to and accepted ourselves. The reality is forgiving ourselves may be the hardest forgiving we do.
I received another powerful story from someone struggling to forgive himself for mistakes made in his past. He regrets some choices he made (don’t we all?) and isn’t sure how to move forward with forgiving himself and letting his regrets go. Yet his past led to experiences of deep learning. He learned to walk away from difficult pressures and embrace his own values. His profound wisdom about what’s truly important in life is now razor-sharp. Yet forgiving himself is still an ongoing struggle—as it is for so many of us.
Throughout our lives, God’s grace is sufficient. Even if we struggle mightily to accept ourselves with all our flaws and mistakes, God’s grace is bigger than any self-doubts we may have. When our emotions are unreliable and our self-criticism can’t be contained, we are called to trust in an unwavering and dependable God—a God who already knows our deepest shames and hurts. The gift of the cross and resurrection stands for all, and God embraces us as we are, for Jesus Christ already had the last words with sin—no more.
"For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Romans 3:22b-24