Here's a news flash: we all make mistakes. We all do and say things about others or to others that hurt and injure another person. Some of these are minor infractions, quickly resolved and sent into relational history. Other acts do significant damage to a relationship and heal at a glacial pace.
We as Christians are called to forgiveness, which includes both attributes of confession and reconciliation. Reconciliation is the sexy part of that ministry, where we revel in the moment where, "it's all okay, " even when it may only be okay on the very surface because we've rushed to paint a patina of good will and friendship over the deep wounds of hurt while paying very little attention to the hurtful acts.
Confession is the not-so-much-fun part, where we have to admit the wounds, ours and the ones we have inflicted upon others. Confession is the dirty part of forgiveness. Confession requires us to delve into the brokenness of our own souls and the impact that brokenness has upon others. We are astoundingly good at confessing other's imperfections, telling others how they have hurt us, telling others what they have done to injure us. Yet confession also requires that we listen to how we've hurt others. Confession holds within it the question, "How have I hurt you?". Obviously, not something most of us want to hear on a Friday evening, but God never calls us to the path of least resistance. Rats.
In our usual Dirty Sexy Ministry way, some thoughts on how we can walk that path of apology and confession.
1. Be courageous and willing to ask and hear how you've hurt someone. Even if your voice shakes as you ask the question, even if you're frightened about what you may hear (although most of us usually have some broad idea of what we've done when a relationship is damaged - we're usually not THAT surprised, unless the surprise is that the other person knows what we did), if you want fully to engage in confession and reconciliation, begin the conversation.
2. Listen to the pain of another to listen, not to craft your counter-arguments. In worthwhile relationships, both parties get to speak of their joy and pain. If you find yourself listening to all the bad you've done, and how it's all your fault, but never her/his, this may not be a person who needs your full energy. On the other hand, if you feel compelled to list the other's faults and shortcomings without giving equal time to them speaking of yours, you may need to spend less time with your own ego. Jesus gets to be perfect; the rest of us fall short of the glory of God.
3. Actually be sorry for what you've done. If you're not, or if you experience the person being angry for something that doesn't resonate with you, keep talking. Usually, when lots of hurt has gone unspoken, we fall into the scorekeeping mode of hurt, where simply breathing incorrectly becomes fertile ground for injurious action. Thus, listen and keep listening.
4. Never, ever say, "I'm sorry for whatever I've done," when you aren't willing to hear or talk about what you've done. This is the burka of apologies. It's a blanket covering for the wrong-doing, but it completely ignores the substance of what needs to be discussed. And it silences the other's pain.
5. And, "I'm sorry for what you think I did to hurt you," is #4's trashier cousin. It's not even an apology.
6. Confession and reconciliation needs to be on equal footing. Both parties (or all parties) need to be assured of the egalitarianism of the process of confession. This may not be such a factor in issues between friends or some spouses/partners, it does become an issue with work situations, congregational issues, and other systemic wounds. When there is a discrepancy in the relationship because one person (or group) is in a more powerful position that the other, the less-powerful person needs some sense of protection. Perhaps a neutral third-party, perhaps a covenant of courtesy to which all people agree, perhaps even simply sitting in a neutral space. While this may sound odd, my experience is the person in less power will often capitulate just to stay safe, which provides more breeding ground for resentment and her rowdy friends deep-seated anger and victimization when a person or group feels they had to apologize and while their pain, hurts, and disappointments were never addressed.
7. Give time her due. While, "I'm sorry I borrowed your blouse and got ink on it and ruined it," may be something that can be confessed and reconciled over coffee, "I'm sorry I borrowed your husband and had an affair, " is probably something that needs a great deal of time to be fully confessed and reconciled. For the big stuff, don't think that it's all said and done in the course of a few moments and a latte afterwards. While the healing time of reconciliation may be awkward and uncomfortable, allow it to be holy and liminal space where God is working.
8. Recognize that confession is not about making YOU feel better or getting YOUR way. Confessing our damage to the relationship is about honesty and transparency and vulnerability. We should be a bit nervous and awkward about the process. Confession is a mark of opening our selves and souls and wounds to God for healing which, for most of us, is a bit painful for our own souls.
9. Recognize reconciliation is not something either party does alone, but something we offer to God. The Presiding Bishop made a statement recently along the lines of not being able to forgive with hate in our hearts. Depending on the damage, some anger and hate takes time for God to unknot and salve. Deep wounds take time to heal, and sometimes healing is not, "Hey, it's all okay and we're friends again." Mystery has a big part of reconciliation. Don't make this an academic exercise.
10. Engage the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe you're a bit too nervous actually to make confession to a priest, but even reading the liturgy alone and naming your sins aloud to God is a worthwhile act of apology.