Friday, February 08, 2013

Apologizing: how not to (Or: Easy for me to say "I'm sorry")

Last Wednesday at church my text was Leviticus 5:5, which gave me the opportunity to do some teaching on confession. Among the many things on which we touched, I mentioned that the circle of confession should equal the circle of the offense. For instance, if my sin is strictly mental, there's no one to talk to about it other than God. If my sin affects and is known by one person, I must speak with that one person. If the sphere of the sin is broader, so must be the arena of the confession.

By contrast...

I am neither a fan nor an admirer of the late George Eldon Ladd, lauded though he is for some of his work. From what I've read of him, was a man very eager to be thought well of by people who didn't think well of Christ. He wanted to be thought of as a smart evangelical, who was hep to liberal scholarship while holding different views here and there. He wanted liberals to respect him.

A major work of Ladd's was 1964's Jesus and the Kingdom. He had a lot personally invested in it. However, influential liberal NT scholar Norman Perrin (who had just published on the subject) wrote a widely-read review of Ladd's book that was simply scathing, climaxing in this sniffing, dismissive sentence: “Ladd thus takes his stand squarely in midstream of the contemporary concern about eschatology—with his face turned resolutely upstream, whence we all came some considerable time ago.” Ouch.

Ladd was personally devastated by the review, a fact that came to be widely-known. Reportedly, when Perrin heard, he regretted having been so sharp in his criticism. Here's how Donald Hagner reports the aftermath, in Hagner's chapter on Ladd:
When Perrin heard about Ladd’s painful reaction to the review and was informed of Ladd’s fundamentalist background, he regretted having written such a sharply critical review. Some years afterwards at a professional conference, Ladd and Perrin happened to sit at the same table. Ladd, it is reported, shook throughout the meal and was unable to speak. After the others had left the table, Perrin to his credit was gentlemanly enough to apologize to Ladd for the hurt he had caused him. 
[Elwell, W. A., & Weaver, J. D. (1999). Bible interpreters of the twentieth century: A selection of evangelical voices (237). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.]

Well, here's what I wonder. Did Perrin apologize because he concluded that he had done something wrong, something immoral that he should not have done? If so, what? Was it that review? That review, which was read broadly among the whole world of scholarship in which Ladd so eagerly sought acceptance and respect?

If so, then what is "gentlemanly" about waiting until there were no witnesses, to apologize privately for this very, very public sin?

Further, if Perrin concluded that he had done wrong, did he only come to this conclusion on this night, so many years after the event, and conveniently in the chance presence of Ladd? If not, why was the "apology" (such as it was) so long in coming?

Or if all Perrin was saying was he had in fact done and said the right thing and wouldn't change a word, but he felt bad that Ladd took it so hard — well, that's not really a confession, is it? And it's not really an apology. It did nothing to acknowledge, let alone repair, the damage that Ladd felt Perrin had done him.

In fact, it's arguably worse than not apologizing at all. "I feel bad that you were such a weakly, bad sport, and a whiner, about that well-deserved beating I gave you. So, you're a wimp — but I'm a good guy, because see? Correct, unapologetic... yet sensitive!"

To heal a relationship, a Biblical confession/apology should contain these elements:
  1. It should acknowledge the wrongness of a specific act.
  2. It should encompass the same sphere as the act, or as close to it as possible.
  3. It should include a commitment to undo the harm, if possible.
  4. It should include a request for forgiveness for the offense.
Perrin's action, as reported above, give a pretty good illustration of how not to confess and heal a relationship by an apology worthy of the name.


Herding Grasshoppers said...

Oh Dan, this is so well said. All my life, my dad (whom I admire and respect) has insisted that the apology be as wide as the offense.

Saying "I'm sorry" can be very cheap. Sorry for what???

Confessing is agreeing with God about sin, yah? "I did X, and that was wrong." And make it right - if possible.

Which brings up questions about forgiveness that are probably outside the scope of the post.

But Dan, so well said.


100 Mile Pants said...

Great post! Have bookmarked it for future reference.

The 4 bullet points at the end are a very helpful summary.

trogdor said...

Perrin's apology is still light years ahead of TD Jakes.

DJP said...

Perhaps I should have added

5. If you pastor a really large church... nevermind.

trogdor said...

5:1 is not good for those whose position required testimony on that affair, yet refused to speak up for whatever reason.

On this matter: I haven't read the Ladd work or the whole review, but the quoted line sounds like one I would probably generally agree with. Of course, Perrin and I would be coming from completely different sides. His argument seems to be that Ladd hasn't drifted nearly far enough, while I would be concerned that he drifted at all. It's yet another example of the folly of attempted fence straddling - the godly will be upset and concerned that you're abandoning the faith, and the enemies of God* will never be satisfied with anything short of complete abandonment of God's truth. Why participate in such a foolish venture?

Another issue: if Perrin did nothing wrong, then the non-apology is a minor example of the tyrrany of the offended. As in, you were completely correct in everything, but I don't like it, so I'll take offense, and you'll still be wrong. It's a reprehensible tactic, which should not in any way be acceptable among people of the truth.

One of my friends had to establish a rule early on in his mawwiage: "Crying is not an argument". His wife is very emotional, even for a girl, and would often cry at the first sign of disagreement. So they had to agree on this as a rule - cry all you want, but we have to be adults and decide based on the evidence, and tears aren't evidence.

What I'm saying is, much of this nation (and far too much of the church) argues like a hyper-emotional young girl. And it can be really hard to deal with. But ultimately we need to be adults and do what's right, no matter how much they cry.

*I don't know nearly enough about Perrin to say definitively if he's in this group. But what little I can find in a quick search - his identity as a liberal NT scholar, his work at undermining the authority of the gospels, his seeming to urge Ladd to abandon scripture altogether - does not look promising.

DJP said...

You so often double the value of my posts by your comments. I hadn't even made the Lev. 5:1 connection; but good point.

Chris Brauns said...

Such great insights and an interesting example as well. Really helpful!

DJP said...

For those who don't know him, Chris is the author of the best work on forgiveness I've ever read. Highly recommended.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"To heal a relationship, a Biblical confession/apology should contain these elements:
It should acknowledge the wrongness of a specific act.
It should encompass the same sphere as the act, or as close to it as possible.
It should include a commitment to undo the harm, if possible.
It should include a request for forgiveness for the offense."

Very, very good.

Anonymous said...

"To heal a relationship, a Biblical confession/apology should contain these elements:"
"#3 It should include a commitment to undo the harm, if possible."

I would expand #3 a lot, and maybe make a 5th element: You must forgo any benefits that came your way as a direct result of a sin. So for example, let's suppose I made a lot of money by cheating somebody and that person dies. Or maybe I got I promotion instead of a coworker by cheating him, and the coworker leaves the company. I don't think I've really repented of the sin unless I forgo the money I stole and forgo the promotion I cheated myself into, even if I'm not undoing the harm. Let me give example that has always really bothered me. A girl in our old church got pregnant during her senior year of high school, and later got an abortion. She told our pastor that her dreams of going to the college she wanted and several other things would be ruined if she decided to have the kid. Later she supposedly repented, and did all #1-#4 of these elements, even volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. But now she's going to the ivy league college she wanted and pretty much living the exact life she wants, with a really great social life attached. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but something about this whole thing really rubs me the wrong way.

Aaron said...

I've always struggled with #5 just because I wanted to make sure I wasn't asking to avoid repentance but because I was truly repentant.

@Paul: That would be very tricky. I have often struggled with forgiveness because I've harmed plenty in my lifetime. Often I've struggled with how to deal with sins I've committed against others...sins that were committed many, many years ago. How do I locate somebody I haven't seen in 20 years? Or who I didn't know that well in the first place.

Looking at my own life, I'm not sure where I'd even start to go back in time, parse out what sins I've done, how I may have profited from them, and what I'd need to do to untangle all of that.

At some point it goes from genuine repentance and restitution to a sort of self flagellation.

semijohn said...

"At some point it goes from genuine repentance and restitution to a sort of self flagellation."

Or maybe penance, the sacrament we Protestants don't have nowadays. I think we should stick to the original 4 (though I wouldn't mind hearing DP on #5). I think of Joseph's brothers: after what they did to him, should they have told Joseph "No, we're going to stay here and starve, because we don't want to 'profit' from our sin we did to you by going to Egypt and prospering."

REM said...

Dan, This is very practical and thanks to trogdor as well. Also, it may be a stretch, but is that a veiled Chicago lyric reference in the title? If so, busted!'m_Sorry

DJP said...

I would have thought that, for regular readers, the veil would be pretty gauzy.