Making Amends

Of all the steps in teshuvah, I am especially interested in restitution, or making amends.  The Jewish and Twelve Step traditions recognize great power in this step, but Christians place little emphasis on it as a step towards healing or reconciliation with God.  What are we missing?

When we realize we have done something that hurt another person, it is natural to seek that person’s forgiveness as well as God’s.  In our house, we try to avoid the word “sorry” in apologies.  There are just too many ways it can go wrong.  There’s the pre-teen, sullen, single-word sentence uttered with downcast eyes that really means, “If I say nothing, maybe they’ll get bored and leave me alone.”  There’s the teenage, “Dad!  I said I was sorry, ok?” screamed defiantly and followed by a door slam that shouts, “No remorse here!”  Then there’s the one I personally despise, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” that actually means, “I’m good.  This is your problem.”   All of them remind me of the country western song, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I know how sorry you are.”

I encourage family members not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent.  It’s just better to ask for time to think about it.  When some remorse can be found, the script goes, “I realize how wrong I was.  Will you forgive me?”  Thanks go to my godfather who supplied the script.  We tend to do better with that.

Restitution is more than an apology, though.  The idea of restitution is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged or to do it symbolically if we can’t do it directly.  “I’m sorry I broke your lamp when I was drunk,” is an apology.  Replacing or repairing the lamp amends the offense.  If someone gets drunk, drives, and kills somebody in a traffic accident, he can’t go back and “un-kill” the person who died.  Becoming an organ donor is a symbolic amend that can give life back to someone in the future.  If I was careless with someone’s feelings, maybe donating to a cause the person cares about is a symbolic way of restoring care.

Of course, this is all hypothetical for me.  I have been practicing confession in the Episcopal tradition regularly for years, and I have never approached restitution as a part of the process.  Realizing the prominent role it plays in other traditions brought a real blind spot in my personal practice to light.  I take absolution to heart, burning my confession notes and not looking back.  Believe me, when I set about writing a book about confession, I would have loved to have had 10 years of notes to refresh my memory.  I can’t honestly regret burning them, though.  It’s wonderful to feel free.  Here’s the thing, though.  While I don’t feel burdened by my past, I do feel disconnected from it.

Making amends not only mends bridges in broken relationships.  Perhaps more significantly, it also mends bridges to a broken past.  Instead of regretting or recoiling from the past, restitution builds on it, allowing us to raise something good out of the ashes of something bad.  I suspect I’d have a very different feeling about my past if I had had the fortitude and courage to have made amends.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever fled the past instead of building on it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at