A reader ponders apologies for sins

This person writes:

I have a question about apologizing and I haven’t been able to find an answer anywhere. Does the Church ever tell us we must apologize to others?

The Church calls us to make reparation for our sins in some way.  Reparation can look different depending on the circumstances.  But certainly an extremely common form of reparation, in many cases, is a simple apology.  Often it is all that is needed.  But again, that depends on the circumstances.

I’m examining my conscience and realizing that I’ve sinned against a lot of people. I feel guilty for not apologizing, but I don’t know if I should.

It depends entirely on if it will do them good.  Many times an apology can be healing for the victim, who needs to know that you realize what you did to them and are sorry for it.  But sometimes an apology can be self-indulgent, an attempt by the sinner to make himself feel better, even if forcing the re-opening of old wounds on the victim just re-inflicts trauma.  So we have to always think about what is best for the other.  God cares about that far more than he cares about ticking off items on a legalistic “to-do” list.

Relatedly, we all have a lot of sins piled up over the years.  Apologies are certainly good.  But at the same time, don’t make yourself crazy if you can’t remember cheating at tiddly winks when you were ten years old and fail to apologize to Cindy Lu Whosit from down the street.  The idea is to make a good faith effort as repairing hurts done, not to destroy yourself with guilt about every forgotten person you may have hurt, not matter how minor it was.

Some people probably either don’t know or don’t remember that I’ve sinned against them. There are a few people I’ve sinned against many times, and it seems insincere (and strange) to randomly issue a lot of blanket apologies. I know the priest can’t make revealing my sins a condition of absolution, but is it a sin not to apologize?

I would say it’s a sin to refuse to apologize when you know they need you to apologize.  Keep the focus on them rather than on fulfilling some sort of abstract legal obligation.  It’s about repairing relationship and healing open wounds.

Or is this just scrupulosity? Thanks for any help you can provide.

My guess is that you are more in danger of scrupulosity than of callous disregard for God and man.  Go to God and ask him to help you think about who, if anybody, needs to hear, “I’m sorry” from you.  Then go offer your apologies and Let. It Go.  You can’t be responsible for whether or how your contrition is received.  You can only do what you can do and then trust God to do the rest.

Hope that helps!


6 Responses

  1. I think Mark hit the nail on the head: “It depends entirely on if it will do them good. … I would say it’s a sin to refuse to apologize when you know they need you to apologize.” If you keep that principle in mind, you should be okay.

    I’ll illustrate with an extreme example – many years ago, my ex-husband refused to apologize for having an affair. His apology would have done me a lot of good, which I explained to him, but he steadfastly refused to apologize for (misguided) Principled Reasons that I don’t recall. In his case, not only did he sin by having an affair, but he compounded his sin by refusing to apologize or express any sort of contrition.

    In that situation I think the answer to your “Should I apologize?” question is fairly obvious, and if (God forbid!) you find yourself in a similarly egregious situation, and your victim is expressly asking for an apology, then yes I think it’s pretty clear you’re obligated to apologize. Otherwise, just follow what Mark said and of course pray for everyone that comes to mind that you think you may have hurt.

    Good luck!

  2. Maybe your correspondent can borrow from the Twelve Step tradition. After a person makes a moral inventory, the next step is to make genuine amends to people they have harmed, unless to do so would cause harm to someone.

    If the writer has sinned against people who don’t even know or remember it, there’s no amends necessary. If dredging up a sin from long ago would cause pain, you don’t do that.

    And what you absolutely don’t do, is take it as an opportunity to say, “Yeah I was wrong, doing much better now, and so I never expect to hear about this again.”

    Learn about yourself from your past sins. Resolve never to repeat them and stick to it the best you can. And pray for those you’ve hurt, and pray for those who have hurt you, from the heart.

  3. I know there have been a few (thankfully) occasions when I longed to apologise to someone for something I had done – and knew it would harm them. Sometimes the longing to apologise is based on my own guilt, and the need for absolution; that is a burden I cannot place on another, just because it would make me feel better. God has forgiven me. Sometimes that has to be enough.

  4. If all else fails you can always join the GOP. They’ll teach you Jedi level powers of sociopathy, how to blame others for making you hurt them and how to realize that you’re the real victim in any dispute!

  5. There are incidents from my past where I said something stupid and still remember it, decades later. If given the opportunity, I would apologize profusely, but it just hasn’t happened. I wish I’d done it at the time!

    I have my own situation of a couple refusing to apologize for abuse and bullying. Their response was “We owe you nothing.” And they call themselves Orthodox Christians, while visiting my blog every month or so for nearly ten years now. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Orthodoxy teaches….

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