Thursday, June 10, 2010

Discerning Apologies (the search for authentic fruit)

Let's face it:

Not everyone who says "I'm sorry" actually can be trusted to mean it. Not every apology is actually worth the time invested in speaking it. Every child has -- at some point -- been guilty of saying "sorry", and hearing a parent chide them with words to the effect of: "that wasn't sincere; now say it like you mean it".

John the Baptist wasn't referring to the sincerity of apologies when he said "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:7-9), but the principle is a good one.

Sincere apologies start with recognizing and feeling remorse for a wrong, acknowledging the need to repent, and following through either by making restitution or correcting what had led to the original problem.

An insincere apology does none of these things. It has no real remorse (except perhaps that people found out), no sense of repentance (which would require acknowledgement that something wrong or sinful has occurred), and no intention of changing a thing (the fruit of repentance).

The insincere apology can also quickly degenerate into a legalistic blunt instrument, if the person who naively accepted the apology notices that there is no genuine repentance, and that the same abuses are allowed to continue as before. If the victim speaks up a second time, they are often rebuked (and re-abused) with lines like, “Are you still holding onto offense? Didn’t we apologize, and didn’t you accept our apology?” It takes a special kind of hard-heartedness to manipulate people in this way.

The other tried-and-tested way of silencing those who would speak out is to seek reconciliation without repentance. This appears spiritual at first -- the various parties are asked to agree that they’re all still growing in God, and are on the same team, after all, so let’s just agree to disagree, and get on with the work of the building the Kingdom of God.

On the surface, it would be hard to argue with that, without feeling like you were being judgmental and petty. And those who lack the words to describe why their spiritual instincts are telling them that something is still wrong, find themselves accused of being “unwilling to forgive” or “unwilling to be reconciled”. This accusation has the powerful effect of heaping more shame and condemnation on the victim, while giving the abuser a false sense of having the moral high ground.

Forgiveness doesn’t require the other party repenting -- we are called by Jesus to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 18:21-35).

Reconciliation, however, does require repentance -- otherwise, there is no truth being spoken in the relationship, no mutuality of honoring each other, and no love (value) placed on each other. It’s just a way of “enabling” abusive people to continue in their abusive ways, with no consequences.

The sham of reconciliation without repentance is a manipulative smoke screen that protects the abuser and re-victimizes the abused. It’s bad enough when used by abusive people, but leaders who use it to protect the abusers, to cover up the abuse, and to silence the victims, are perhaps guilty of a greater sin.

Apologies, like love, must be sincere (Romans 12:9-12). Offering forgiveness isn't an option for those who would call Jesus "Lord", but the search for authentic fruit in keeping with an apology is a matter of accountability and spiritual maturity.