THE POWER OF APOLOGIES
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
In a recent gathering over Chinese New Year, I received a most unexpected surprise.
Someone who had been a tacit part of the concerted effort to stop my wedding five years ago struck up a conversation with me. Then, out of nowhere, she apologised.
She said she was sorry that, at the time, she had thought that she knew what was best for my divorced husband and that I was not it. In the ensuing years, she had prayed over our union and had recently received the message that God knew what was best for all individuals and we humans should not judge.
She told me she had experienced that prompting one day while at prayer, then felt doubly chastised when her pastor preached exactly the same message at church the next day.
Her apology was so sincere and so unexpected, I burst into tears and had to cover my face with both hands to compose myself at a gathering full of watchful eyes.
You see, when we got married, many family members, friends and people in the church community thought my husband - a beloved and respected pastor in the Methodist Church - ought to have stayed true to his first wedding covenant no matter what even though it was not him who broke it. As a firm believer in the sanctity of wedding vows myself, I had a tough time grappling with whether I ought to become his second wife.
Ultimately, we received many positive signs we believe to have been sent by God, as well as many affirmations from key people in our lives. Thus, we were convinced, after much internal struggle, that we were not just heeding our own selfish desires and that this second chance God had granted Norman was indeed one He had sanctioned.
We did not, however, advertise our convictions nor our reasons, and thus many opposed the marriage vehemently. I was castigated as a woman (far worse epithets were used) leading a Man of God astray and breaking up a beautiful family.
[For the record, I was only introduced formally to Norman one year after his divorce had already been formalised and I was never The Other Woman. Just in case you were wondering.]
This persecution from various quarters continued right up to the days before our wedding, leaving me both dispirited and drained. I only very belatedly sorted out my wedding gowns; I left my florally-challenged husband to procure the simplest of bouquets from a gardening nursery; I had no interest in what we served our guests at the church wedding reception; while leaving almost the entire planning of our wedding dinner to my poor sister and a bunch of amazing friends. One of them had recently got married herself, and she kindly allowed me to copy-and-paste her wedding preparations from gown designer to hair and make-up artist. I simply did not have any enthusiasm a usual bride-to-be would have shopping around for all the frills. For someone who had dreamed of her wedding from when she was a child, I was strangely removed from the entire affair because I was so distracted by the constant barrage of critical, negative emails arriving daily that left me in puddles of tears.
The reason I’m detailing all this is because, although the actual wedding day itself was heavenly and joyful, the hurt and trauma surrounding it became deep-seated emotions I never knew I continued to carry with me all these years hence.
Until this lady apologised.
Suddenly a dam of emotions was released and all the hurt bubbled back up to the surface, started to burst, and dissipate into thin air. It felt like something that had weighed heavy on my heart had lightened its load considerably and I could breathe easier.
Of course, hers was only one apology even though I had felt wronged by a whole host of other people. But it was the first. And because I never expected any acknowledgement of wrongdoing from anyone in the first place, receiving one unbidden was such a (pleasant) shock to my system.
She said that she could now see that I was very good for Norman’s well-being and that she was happy that we were happy. It was everything I had longed to hear when we got married five years ago.
The Reconciliation of Esau and Jacob
By Peter Paul Rubens (1624)
So inspired was I by this lady’s apology and how it made me feel, that I finally decided to do something I had put off for years: I was going to make my own apology.
It was an incident I had forgotten about for many years but had recently come back to haunt me as I went through a career switch and reflected on past transgressions I had made in my work history.
It happened 20 years ago when I was a young whippersnapper, ambitious and impatient to get where I wanted to go without hindrances from what I perceived as bureaucratic red tape and lack of understanding of how certain industries work.
Without delving into too much detail, it would suffice to say that I went above someone’s head to get done something I figured was the right thing to do. In the process, I disrespected my senior in a major way and did not show her any face at all. I eventually got my way and we never interacted again directly the entire five years I was at the company.
At the time, I was riding high and thought nothing of my callous behaviour. But as I grew older and experienced the same treatment from younger whippersnappers, the incident returned to my memory in all its ugliness - my ugliness - and I felt ashamed. I never knew I carried that shame with me, buried deep, for so long until the heaviness started to manifest seven or eight years ago.
As I turned back to God and His teachings after an extended period of shallow faith, and after experiencing the persecution pertaining to my wedding, I started to appreciate what Jesus asked of us in Matthew 5:23-24:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift."
So I asked around and found this former colleague’s mobile number. I had hoped to get her email address because an email apology seemed more formal and distant to this cowardly lioness, but I could only get her mobile and decided to rely on a WhatsApp apology.
Me: “Hi XX, I’m Joanne Lee and you may have forgotten me. About 20 years back, we had a tussle, I went over your head and we never spoke thereafter. In truth, I just wanted my way. I was impatient to get to where I wanted to get and I did not respect your authority nor give you any face. I know it’s probably too little too late, but I want to apologise. I was wrong to have behaved so selfishly and insensitively. I’ve been wanting to apologise for years, but I made all sorts of excuses: I didn’t want to dredge the past up; you’ve probably forgotten all about it; you’ll probably think I’m apologising just to make myself feel better; you probably won’t respond anyway. But I do believe apologies are important, so I managed to get your number and I decided it’s high time I apologise. You don’t need to reply to this and it is well within your prerogative not to forgive me and my inexcusable behaviour. I just want you to know I’m very sorry.”
Five hours later...
XX: “Hi Joanne, so good to hear from you! I'm so touched that you have taken this initiative to contact me. I don't remember the episode anymore, but I'm sure, at the time, it must have been an itch that I couldn't scratch, LOL. As a Christian, I think it's so inspiring that you are reaching out to someone you think you have wronged. I don't hold anything against you. All is well, Joanne. Please be at peace.”
I had not even known she was a Christian and I’m certain she did not know I was one either! The minute I read her reply, I could feel God smiling down on both His children, shaking his head affectionately and sighing: “Finally.”
20 years. I had carried that burden inside me for 20 years. Now, my heart felt noticeably clean and light. I had told myself I was apologising because it was the right thing to do, not to make myself feel better. But who am I kidding? I did feel better. Lots better.
Apologies: what powerful creatures they are. Receiving them frees up hurt and resentment; giving them releases guilt and shame. Either way, reconciliation affords us a cleansing of the soul and a lightness of being that are priceless.
Having experienced the power of apologies, I now understand why Jesus wants us to seek reconciliation. When you reconcile and leave your anger, self-righteousness, guilt, resentment, bitterness, hurt et cetera behind, you will be able to come to God feeling clean and light, communing with Him without a heavy heart - a heavy heart that you may or may not realise you’ve been lugging around for years.
Think about it. When you go meet a friend for a good catch-up, isn’t it far more pleasant and enjoyable when both of you do so without a care in the world? Conversely, haven’t we all had lunch with a Negative Nelly who can’t open her mouth without whining incessantly about someone who has wronged her and thought to ourselves: “please, just stop!”
I think that is why God wants us to go unburden our souls, reconcile with those we have had altercations with, then come to Him with clean, light hearts so our communion with Him is far more focused, pleasant and enjoyable.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am no angel and I have wronged many, many people in my life. Not all those regrettable episodes, however, can be resolved by a simple bilateral apology. In more complicated instances which involve two or more parties, apologies could create havoc and would probably do more harm than good. And so I’ll probably have to carry those burdens to my grave.
Yes, I know Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And, of course, I do believe this assurance and take comfort that He has forgiven me my transgressions. But I still wish I could say all my sorries to those I have wronged and cleanse my heart of all its heavinesses.
It’s relative, though, isn’t it? A slightly cleaner, lighter heart is better than nothing at all, and I am glad I was able to move past my excuses and do the right thing by my former colleague.
May I gently encourage you to do the same?
Think of the wrongs you may have wrought in the past, bilateral apologies you can make without sowing discord elsewhere, and seek forgiveness so you too can enjoy that clean, light heart that God wants us to have before we commune with Him.
Experience the power of apologies today. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.