How to Apologize in Public

November 18, 2006

Marvin Olasky writes in the current issue of World magazine about apologizing in public (Click here to read comments on the World Magazine blog). Taking as his starting point that confession and repentance should accompany thanksgiving (a helpful fact to keep in mind five days before Thanksgiving), Olasky points out how hard it is for any of us to admit that we have done wrong. It all started with Adam who blamed Eve and God for his troubles in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:12). Fifteen years ago I preached sermon series on seven questions you need to ask in order to assess your own spiritual health. The first one was, Is It Becoming Easier to Say, ’I Was Wrong’? Alas, for most of us the answer is no, it doesn’t become easier over time to admit we were wrong. Most of us would rather do anything than to admit we were wrong. Do you remember how much trouble Fonzie had with this issue on the TV series Happy Days? Fonzie was too cool to ever admit he was wrong. Richie Cunningham would say to him, “Go ahead, admit it, you were wrong.” So Fonzie would go, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-.” And he couldn’t get the word out. So he would end up saying, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-Not right!” But “not right” is not the same thing as “wrong.” If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But if you are “not right,” nobody really knows what you are.
Olasky’s column includes several examples of apologies by various public figures, including Jesse Jackson, Tom Brokaw and Jimmy Swaggart. He doesn’t mention Ted Haggard’s letter to his congregation several weeks ago, but he could have. As a side note, when I typed the words “I have sinned” into Google, the first thing that came up was Bill Clinton’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1998 where he unequivocally says, “I have sinned.”
How should we apologize when we have done wrong? Olasky ends his column with this clear answer:

The right way is the simple way: an address to the offended human party and to God as well. “I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

In one of his books, Bruce Larson mentions visiting a halfway house in Western Ontario where people with severe emotional struggles might come and find healing. Above the fireplace in the main meeting room was a sign that read, “Do you want to be right or well?”
What a great question. Each one of us faces that same choice. As long as you demand that you be right all the time, you will never get better. Saying “I was wrong” is both hard and humbling, and it is also the liberating truth that sets us free.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?