Chapman and Thomas in The Five Languages of Apology have a chapter about how apology is a choice.
The Bible in Romans 12:18 says that if possible, as much as it depends upon you, you should live peaceably with all people. This recognizes that sometimes peace is not possible and sometimes it does not depend upon you. But peace, in the sense of lack of hostility and alienation, is the goal. Therefore, the choice to apologize falls upon the person who cares about the relationship. An apology may be rejected, but the giving of the apology is a choice, it is something you control.
This raises the question of what to do if you think most of the fault lies with the other party. He or she has wronged you. But you know they will not apologize. If you are the one who cares about the relationship, it may be that you are the one who needs to apologize.. Few situations where people get alienated from one another are entirely the fault of only one party. So even if you think you are only 10% at fault, it may be up to you to make the choice to apologize.
The authors analyze the reason some people never apologize as having to do with self esteem. If you have low self esteem, you may find apology particularly threatening. You are already beating yourself up. Apology just opens you up to let somebody else beat you up too. Perhaps there is something to this, but I have to admit that I am really tired of hearing self esteem used as an excuse for anything, especially for suppressing one’s conscience. It seems to me this is part of the therapeutic turn in our culture that has screwed up a lot of things.
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, some people are not going to take the first step in apologizing. If you apologize to such a person, the risk is that they will see your apology as validation for their own lack of taking responsibility. But it is also possible that it will begin a thaw in the relationship. The authors tell some hopeful stories from their experience about how this happens. So the more you value the relationship, the more you need to be proactive about apology.
There are some people who are overly apologetic. They are annoyingly sorry for everything. One wife said her husband apologized a lot because every day he did something to apologize for. She wasn’t joking.
But usually people who apologize too much do so because they have come to assume that they will be blamed and they want to get it over with. In other words, for them apology is a short cut that skips over the issues in order to get to a resolution. One party may want to talk or argue an issue to get beyond it. But the other party short circuits this by apologizing too soon. The problem does not actually get resolved and resentment builds.
There is a lot of wisdom here. Alienation of friends, family members, and church members is a major problem that I have dealt with over and over. People may forget the original issue and just know nothing can be right again until the other party apologizes for whatever it was.
Theologically, I think there is a problem with people repenting of Adam’s sin, but glossing over the details of their own sin. Or–for people in my denomination who often see sin as social–we may repent of the sins of our ancestors who were racist or sexist and yet remain pretty self-righteous about our selves. Since we are all sinners or participate in the sins of our ancestors, the details of our individual sins don’t matter, it is thought. So our confession of sin is very general and vague. One of the things we might learn from bringing repentance into the context of our need to apologize to other people is that repentance needs to apply to our own sins. An old spiritual says its not others but myself “standing in the need of prayer.”
So repentance is not just saying the sinner’s prayer or repeating by rote a confession of sin that is written into the liturgy, it is a choice to confront the dark side of yourself.