When Apologizing Is Wrong
August 18, 2020 Blogs by: Tim Jennings, M.D.

One of the more difficult things in human relationships is knowing when to apologize, when to ask forgiveness, and when not to. It is absolutely righteous and healing to apologize and make amends to the individuals who have been harmed – when actual wrong has been committed.

But it is wrong and damaging to apologize and seek to make amends when no wrong has been done – even if someone feels hurt, slighted, abused, unappreciated, or emotionally injured.

When Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the disciples said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Matthew 15:12 NIV84).

Did Jesus do wrong because His words offended? Do you think the disciples were encouraging Jesus to apologize?

It has become commonplace in society today for people to apologize when others take offense, feel hurt, and allege they have been wronged, rather than first evaluating if a wrong has actually been done. To apologize in order to try and relieve another person’s emotional pain or get them to withdraw their allegation, when no wrong has occurred will only cause injury to both parties and make matters worse – because to apologize when no wrong has been done colludes with a lie.

Apologizing is always wrong and damaging when it is based upon or colludes with a lie!

Examples of Apologies Based upon Lies

A husband comes home from work early and berates his wife for not having anticipated his arrival and having dinner ready for him, and she apologizes to him.

A husband comes home at his normal time and berates his wife because dinner isn’t ready, and she apologizes to him.

Such apologies are based upon the lie that the wife did wrong. The allegation from the husband is based on emotions, not realities. If the wife accepts the blame and apologizes in an attempt to placate her husband and calm his emotions, seeking to restore peace and avoid further hostilities, the only possible result is damage to both herself and her husband.

Despite her desire for peace, which is righteous, her method of apologizing when she did no wrong colludes with a lie and damages both of them. She accepts the lie that she did something wrong, which generates false guilt, a sense of inadequacy, frustration, and feelings of anger and resentment; and she surrenders her own judgment and individuality to her bully husband, becoming less capable of thinking for herself.

Simultaneously, her apology sends the message back to her husband that she agrees with his assertion that she was at fault. This allows her husband to avoid confronting the selfishness in his own heart that caused him to mistreat his wife. Both husband and wife are injured by this apology.

This destructive cascade is true for all apologies based upon lies. Here are some other examples of apologies based upon lies:

  • A wife criticizes her husband for not saying things to people the way she would express them (when no vulgarity or abusive speech was used), and he apologizes to her simply to keep her from being upset with him.
  • A child cries when the parent says no to a request for candy, and the parent apologizes to the child.
  • A church member is angry at the pastor for a sermon, and the pastor apologizes for hurting their feelings.
  • A church member is angry that they or their family member were not selected for a particular office, and the pastor apologizes to them despite knowing full well that they were not selected because they were not well-suited for the position.
  • A student is offended by a non-vulgar hat or T-shirt worn by another student or teacher, and the one wearing the hat or shirt apologizes. Or worse, the school administration disciplines the faculty or student who wore the hat. The reason the action of the administration is even more damaging than the person themselves apologizing is because the administration has both the authority of position and the status of an unbiased third party. Their “ruling” to discipline the innocent party gives validity to the lie and only deepens the false perception of a wrong being committed. This solidifies the false belief in the minds of all involved and makes the truth more difficult to discern and apply. Such falsehoods can become cultural norms that spread through society spreading hate and fueling conflict.
  • A person is angry at actual mistreatment suffered from the police, and their non-law enforcement neighbor apologizes for wrongs they had no role in. This type of apology can introduce the lie that non-responsible parties are guilty for the misconduct of others.
  • A person or group cites wrongs done to their ancestors by your ancestors, and you accept the alleged responsibility – guilt and blame – and apologize for the sins of your ancestors and perhaps even seek to make amends. Or worse, a person in leadership, perhaps a university president, gives a public apology for wrongs of past generations. Such apologies are always destructive and stand in stark contrast to acknowledgement of fact. It is appropriate and necessary for human advancement to acknowledge historic wrongs as wrong: “Slavery was wrong! Jim Crow was wrong! White supremacy was and is wrong!” Past wrongs need to be acknowledged as fact so that we learn from the past. If we fail to learn from history, then we are destined to repeat it. Learning from history is the righteous application of the truth; but taking responsibility for the sins of previous generations and apologizing for them creates a falsehood that damages those who accept and operate upon the lie.

Any apology that is based upon lies is always damaging to all parties involved.

Only the truth heals, only the truth sets free – we cannot genuinely mature, heal, and overcome as long as our beliefs are built on lies, falsehood, and distortion.

Daniel’s Confession

Many get confused about this issue because of Daniel’s corporate confession recorded in Daniel chapter nine, thinking it represents a model for leaders to corporately confess or apologize. In his prayer, Daniel confesses that the people of Israel had done evil, sinned, and failed in fulfilling their purpose for God. But Daniel’s corporate confession was legitimate for Daniel to make, because he was directly involved in and part of the generation who failed to fulfill their mission.

Daniel’s confession would be like a football team’s captain going to the team’s owner and confessing that the players had failed to practice, to study the playbook, and run the plays the coach called. Such a confession would be appropriate for the captain of the team because he was involved in the misconduct. But it would be wrong for the great-grandson of the original team owner to demand that the former players’ great-grandchildren apologize and pay damages for their great-grandfathers’ failures – even if that team struggled at the bottom of the league every season since.

There is a great evil being perpetrated upon society today, and sadly, many compassionate Christians are being deceived by it. They are mistaking compassion toward the suffering with accepting blame and taking responsibility for causing their pain. They have confused saying, “I am sorry that you are in pain; how can I help you heal?” with, “I’m sorry for causing your pain, and I owe you damages.” Many falsely believe that they have inherited guilt for the wrongs of past generations. Such allegations of generational guilt are commonplace in society today – but they are still false and against Bible truth.

Sadly, many are confused because they don’t understand the difference between sin and guilt. Many read the commandment about sins passing down three to four generations and accept the lie that this means responsibility and guilt for the sins of our parents pass to us. This is simply not true. The commandment is not speaking of guilt, but of the physiological (epigenetic) and environmental impact our ancestors’ sins have directly upon us. We inherit the damaging effects of our ancestors’ sins; such effects pass down to our posterity over three to four generations. For instance, a person who engages in substance abuse alters their gene expression and their descendants have greater risk of addiction than if the parent never used such substances.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood these principles when answering questions about why suffering occurs. He acknowledged multiple reason, but one was the inheritance from our ancestors. He wrote, “There are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws, and when we disobey these moral laws we suffer tragic consequences. It is also true that the interrelatedness of human life often necessitates our suffering for the sins of our forefathers.” [1]

The lie that children are responsible for the sins of their ancestors – rather than suffer the damaging consequences in their own person – is specifically rejected by God in Ezekiel chapter 18:

The LORD spoke to me and said, “What is this proverb people keep repeating in the land of Israel?
‘The parents ate the sour grapes,
But the children got the sour taste.’
“As surely as I am the living God,” says the Sovereign Lord, “you will not repeat this proverb in Israel any more” (vs 1–3 GNT).

We could rephrase this passage to read:

“What is this proverb that the people of America keep repeating? ‘The parents held slaves, but the children are told they must pay reparations.’”

God rejects this idea and goes on to make it clear that the guilt of sin does not pass down from parents to their children, but that each person reaps what they sow:

“As surely as I am the living God,” says the Sovereign Lord, “you will not repeat this proverb in Israel any more…

“Suppose there is a truly good man, righteous and honest. He doesn’t worship the idols. … He doesn’t seduce another man’s wife. … He doesn’t cheat or rob anyone. He returns what a borrower gives him as security; he feeds the hungry and gives clothing to the naked. He doesn’t lend money for profit. He refuses to do evil and gives an honest decision in any dispute. Such a man obeys my commands and carefully keeps my laws. He is righteous, and he will live,” says the Sovereign Lord.

“Then suppose this man has a son who robs and kills. … He … seduces other men’s wives. He cheats the poor, he robs. … Will he live? No, he will not. He has done all these disgusting things, and so he will die. He will be to blame for his own death” (vv. 4–13).

God is describing here the principle that each person is responsible for their own choices, that a child cannot rely on the righteousness of their parent. Why not? Because sin sears the conscience, damages the mind, and warps the character. This is how reality works. The child who rejects the truth and righteousness taught by their parents and embraces the selfishness of the world will die because of their own terminal sin condition – it is the inevitable and unavoidable result of unremedied sin in the heart.

Now we get to the question of generational sin, does guilt pass down? Are we responsible for the sins of our parents?

“Now suppose this second man has a son. He sees all the sins his father practised, but does not follow his example. He doesn’t worship the idols. … He doesn’t seduce another man’s wife or oppress anyone or rob anyone. He returns what a borrower gives him as security. He feeds the hungry and gives clothing to the naked. He refuses to do evil and doesn’t lend money for profit. He keeps my laws and obeys my commands. He will not die because of his father’s sins, but he will certainly live” (vv. 14–18).

The children are not held accountable for the sins of their parents. But this didn’t seem right to the people of Israel; they wanted to hold the children accountable. Notice what God says:

“But you ask, ‘Why shouldn’t the son suffer because of his father’s sins?’ The answer is that the son did what was right and good. He kept my laws and followed them carefully, and so he will certainly live. It is the one who sins who will die. A son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins, nor a father because of the sins of his son. A good person will be rewarded for doing good, and an evil person will suffer for the evil he does” (vv. 19, 20).

This is Bible truth. The movement afoot in America today, to hold descendants of slave-owners responsible for the sins of their parents, is a lie, a fraud, and is against God’s principles.

Christian leaders who issue apologies to black people living in America today for the sins committed by past generations upon past generations are colluding with a lie and failing in their responsibility to God to speak the truth. Such leaders are allowing emotions to cloud their judgment and seeking to alleviate hurt feelings by perpetuating falsehoods. Even if such apologies are done with good intention, they will always make matters worse because such actions violate God’s design for life and health. It would be like the doctors who tried to save President George Washington from pneumonia by bleeding and leaching him. Their motives were to help, but their methods were in violation of the laws of health, so they actually harmed.

What is the godly action to take if we are to stand upon Bible principles?

We must speak the truth in love. We must stand up and say, “No! We do not owe you an apology for what our ancestors have done! We have not wronged you, and we have not wronged your ancestors.

“What we do owe you is the truth. We owe you our love. We owe you our friendship, and, as a friend, we cannot collude with this lie that says our ancestors’ sins are our responsibility to repair. We have responsibility for our own selves and, thus, we stand on the truth before God that we love you as an equal and will treat you with equality; and we will respect you enough not to accept the lie that we are to blame for the sins of our forebearers.”

The question to our black neighbors is: Will you embrace the truth and accept our hand of friendship and treat us as our own actions and lives deserve, or will you harbor resentment, hostility, and hate toward us for the sins of our long dead ancestors?

I call for Christian leaders to advance the truth, for only by applying God’s truth are characters healed and restored to harmony with Jesus Christ and our God of truth. Yes – the truth heals and sets free. Apologies based upon lies, while perhaps well meant, will only damage, so don’t be party to it. Instead, be a lover of truth, reject the lies and embrace and apply God’s truth to your life.

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Tim Jennings, M.D. Timothy R. Jennings, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist, master psychopharmacologist, Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Fellow of the Southern Psychiatric Association, and an international speaker. He served as president of the Southern and Tennessee Psychiatric Associations and is president and founder of Come and Reason Ministries. Dr. Jennings has authored many books, including The God-Shaped Brain, The God-Shaped Heart, and The Aging Brain.