Learning when to say you're sorry

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Baseball's all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, has -- according to his agent -- signed souvenir baseballs with the following inscription: "I'm sorry I bet on baseball."

This news follows Rose's revelation in 2004 that he did, in fact, bet on Major League Baseball, including the team he was managing at the time, the Cincinnati Reds. He had denied that very allegation for no fewer than 15 years. Rose's straightforward statement on those white orbs of horsehide is welcome but may well be much too late.

Which begs these questions: Is there a statute of limitations on apologies? When does the window close on saying you're sorry?

The latest fracas over the Pope's recent remarks about Islam is illustrative. Benedict XVI, stunned by the violent reaction to his quotation of a medieval text regarding the religion, says he is sorry for offending Muslims. He did not issue a blanket apology, however. He did not, for example, say the words in that text were wrong.

It's hard to say you're sorry. Witness the spate of non-apologetic apologies that we hear on a seemingly daily basis from politicians, entertainers and athletes. To wit: "If my comments offended anyone, it was not my intention to do so and I regret my words."

That's not an apology, even though it may give that illusion. In other words, the chastened is really saying, "For the thin-skinned out there, you should already know I didn't mean anything offensive, and this whole controversy is really getting me down."

When you say you're sorry, are sincere about it and offer the apology quickly, you can defuse the reaction. A speedy, sincere "I'm sorry" can remove the club from the hand of the insulted.

I've often gone the non-apology apology route in the past; it's the cowardly way and it hurts to admit that. What's worse than the self-loathing it spawns is that you just make cleaning up the mess more difficult later.

You can learn to swallow your pride, apologize rapidly, take the hit upfront and -- amazingly -- those who were hurt by your words and/or actions are generally quick to move on.

"Pride," Proverbs 16:18 reads, "goes before destruction." Pride is at the root of Pete Rose's tardy admission and of the myriad non-apology apologies in our culture. If you're interested in a little Bible study, note the words of 1 John 1:9, which speaks to the reaction of God when we 'fess up.

Years ago, as the brand-new pastor of a church in St. Louis County, I promised a church family to visit their elderly matriarch in the nursing home. Less than three weeks after the promise, the woman suddenly died and I hadn't been to see her. A granddaughter called and chewed me out on the phone. Bile rose in my throat and I bit off a reply. There were extenuating circumstances, but they didn't seem to matter now. At the funeral, I took the family aside before the service began and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't get there. I have no defense." That family and I did not become close, but my admission drained the venom away from the situation. God used "I'm sorry" to defuse the anger and hurt.

If you say or do something that hurts, even if you feel it wasn't that big of a deal, take the better way, what I feel sure is God's way. Take the hit early. Admit what you did, do it quickly to the wronged party, and watch how fast all of you can move on.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies, and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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