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The Surprising Power of a Public Apology

“I’m sorry.”

These two simple words from Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House, came rumbling down the Capitol steps, scrolling across social media timelines, and into the news cycle last week.

In a campaign year besotted with the crass and profane, in a culture that seems to rewards pride and hubris, Ryan’s words were a breath of fresh air.

There is little incentive these days for leaders to publicly admit their mistakes. Supporters see this as cowardice and opponents see this as an opportunity to capitalize on weakness.

What Ryan offered, in the midst of a speech on civility, was refreshing. While speaking out against the coarse nature of the presidential campaign, he admitted his own descent, at times, into less-than-inspiring rhetoric. He recalled previous comments about “makers and takers” in society, and confessed that his previous characterizations were born out of ignorance, “I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong.”

When was the last time we heard a famous figure say, with sincerity, “I was just wrong?” Unlike so many public apologies, Ryan didn’t equivocate, didn’t sidestep, didn’t turn his contrition into an attack on his foes. This kind of leadership offers a stark contrast with the bombastic hubris we've seen so much of in 2016. Ryan's humility cuts against the narcissism of our age.

Public contrition is not just important for politicians. It’s important for any of us who hold positions of power. It’s necessary, though sadly rare, for ministry leaders.

A few weeks ago, we saw this kind of public grace exhibited by well-known mega-church pastor, Andy Stanley, A clip of Stanley disparaging the ministry of small churches went viral, resulting in quite a bit of pushback from small church pastors.

Stanley’s response was as refreshing in that it was unequivocal. No hedging. No defensiveness. No explaining. Stanley not only tweeted his remorse, he allowed Christianity Today to interview him further.

For a Christian, a genuine apology is a sign of something deeper going on in the soul, an admission of fallenness, a nod to our need for the redemptive grace found in Christ. Of course, public contrition can be narcissistic and selfish, an opportunity to save face and move on, without any deep reflection. But when authentic, an apology can be empowering. Narcissists may have short-term victories, but in the long haul of leadership, people follow leaders willing to admit what everyone already knows: leaders are human. This is true regardless of the size of the platform. It's important for national leaders. It's important for prominent pastors. It's important for those who lead in obscure positions unseen by the masses.

I've found genuine apologies empowering in my own roles as husband, father, executive, and pastor. In Scripture we are told, several times, that God “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; Prov. 3:34; 1 Pet. 5:5).” I'd rather experience God's grace than his resistance.

The humility to apologize reflects a heart bent toward God. This is why King David, despite his egregious sins, was considered a man after God’s own heart. If you read Psalm 51, you don’t find a man with his chest puffed out, boasting about sin and eschewing repentance. You find a broken soul. Contrition starts this way, in the heart, as the result of godly sorrow that works repentance. Then it works its way out toward those who've been hurt the most.

The kind of courage it takes to publicly apologize is not learned in seminary or in business school or at leadership conferences. Humility is a discipline developed in the school of prayer, forged over a lifetime of self-reflection and dependence on the Spirit of God. The most mature leaders understand that humility is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

This is why the people worth following are often not those with the loudest voices or the most clever turns of phrase, but those human enough to stand up and say those two simple words.

“I’m sorry.”

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