Would Doug Wilson be Doug Wilson if he didn’t run around causing chaos all yippie skippy in the evangelical circles like some kind of a pastoral Loki? He may cause more mischief than is required but on occasion he ruffles the kinds of feathers that need to be ruffled. A lot of the time it is in the form of a joke that is taken by egalitarians to be deadly, and I mean deadly (words are literal violence these days), seriously. Other times flows forth in the form of a proverb. And since proverbs are more concerned with rules than exceptions, those who think they have or want to have exceptions clutch at their pearls and run for a good huffing of smelling salts.
I would like to take one of those proverbs that has caused some consternation and spend some time unpacking it from my humble position in the lowerarchy. Credit where credit is due. I have been doing a lot of driving around for work with my good friend and sometime contributor to this blog D.W. Smythe; he provided the impetus and sounding board for this post. Also a goodly portion of this article is a regurgitation of Wilson’s long form foundations and reasoning behind the subject at hand. Finally Kevin DeYoung would probably not want to ever be name dropped in any context with Wilson, yet here he is. The thinking out loud he did in relation to the Falwell Jr. scandal was the starters gun for me to start thinking through this subject a bit more fully.
“Never Apologize to your wife. Unless God thinks you have wronged her.” – Douglas Wilson, Man Rampant
As I recall a version of this cropped up in the first episode of Man Rampant where Joe Rigney was being interviewed. That version ran something like “Imagine a group of men gathered for a proper Reformed bachelor party. There are no sinful shenanigans going on, the man are gathered around a fire and they are sharing with the groom to be their best piece of marital advice, youngest to oldest. So the guy with all of two months of marriage under his belt up to the guy with fifty. When the senior statesmen’s turn comes he looks the young man in the eyes and says, ‘Son I want you to promise me you will never apologize to your wife…” He pauses for dramatic effect and the other men shift uncomfortably before finishing, “Unless you have actually sinned.”
I find the earlier version to be a bit more pithy and clear than the later one quoted at the top in the episode with Aaron Renn. The point though is the same. Apologies should follow sin, but they have been overused for a myriad of issues, cheapened by that watering down, and finally abused in the demand for them over any offense real or perceived.
Clearing out the Mental Cobwebs
Clarity in three areas are helpful to orient us to receive this as the wisdom that it is.
1. As mentioned in the introduction, the quotes are proverbs not promises. A proverb is a general rule, it holds true in the vast majority of situations, but there can be exceptions. As Driscoll was fond of pointing out, everyone who reads the book of Proverbs thinks that they have an exception, when they really don’t. Simply because a man justifies a sin to himself does not mean God is fooled. By in large we live under the rules, on a rare occasion.
“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands, and sometimes your lazy uncle wins the lottery” – Douglas Wilson
2. English is a robust language but there is a tendency to be imprecise and loose useful words due to linguistically laziness. And unless you think I have become inebriated with the exuberance of my own verbosity let me try again: I apologize and “sorry” are different and they are different for a good reason. I apologize is formal, it is harder to get out It accepts responsibility, it begs clarification of what was done wrong and portends repentance. “Sorry” is informal. It can be tossed off for knocking over the salt shaker. I have it on good authority that in Great Britain many lampposts are frequently told that when a person walking and texting bumps into them. What is clear in the Wilson proverb is that he is talking about an actual apology not a trivial mea culpa for a faux pas.
3. Closely connected to above is the distinction that needs to be made between sympathy and empathy. The words are used interchangeably but are different. Sympathy means to suffer with, empathy, to suffer in. It is the difference between keeping one foot on solid ground to help a person in distress and jumping into the swift current to drown with them. To modern ears sympathy seems aloof, empathy feels kinder. But one is actually helpful the other has no positive outcome. Empathy is largely used as a cudgel to control a party that is unwilling to bow to emotional pressure.
Manipulation of the Apology
It takes very little walking with your fingers to see the demands for apologies to be used as a weapon. The premise being, apologize now and the trouble you are in will go away. Obviously though forgiveness is never extended and the apology merely morphs into an admission of eternal guilt justifying bitterness and self congratulation. This tactic is now played in the large scale but it is one that wives have known about for ages. Men can play this game too, however, they tend to play it badly and not as often. Despite what our culture wishes there are differences in the emotional and psychological frames of men and women. God designed it that way. And like it or not there are general rules of thumb that can be applied. Rules matter more than exceptions.
What follows is the logical conclusion that Wilson’s proverb holds true in both instances, necessary tweaks being made: “Never apologize to an online mob, unless God thinks you actually did something wrong.”
In marriage there is (or should be) a greater sense of emotional connection. Part of following Peter’s instruction of living with your wife in an understanding way is knowing her emotional buildup and caring for it in an responsible way. This does not mean bowing to pressure to empathize. To many wives the sympathy of a husband can feel cool but it is his role, appointed by God, to responsibly lead. And to some wives that leadership seems to be going badly because of the failure/refusal to suffer in as opposed to suffer with. This means emotional escalation and the demand for an apology. She has been hurt and by worldly standards he should apologize and repent, which means coming around to her view of things.
But notice the slight of hand. No sin was committed. In fact in the above generic scenario the Husband was operating Biblically. No apology or repentance is necessary. The tyranny of emotional reign was threatened and it is demanding a struggle session, that is all.
So again, “Never Apologize to your wife. Unless God thinks you have wronged her.”
Outside of general practicality and wisdom this proverb has a firm Biblical basis.
Who has been Sinned Against
Beneath every apology to another human is a much deeper acknowledgement, exemplified by King David in his admission of grievous sin.
“For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight..” – Psalm 51:3-4a
Clearly David had sinned against many people, but at the root it was all an offense to God. He had sinned against people made in the image of God. He had sexually abused a woman and murdered a man, he lied to other image bearers, and brought others in to unwittingly do his dirty work for him. All together this was a sin against many parties, culminating in the cosmic rebellion that is sin.
Apologies are not something to be made lightly. Part of a proper apology is the confession, request for forgiveness and subsequent repentance before God.
Extending sympathy to a hurting person is a good and Godly thing to do. But to try and appease their feelings by admitting to a sin that does not exist and has not been committed is a lie. Some men need to apologize to their wives for abdicating leadership and lying in an effort to be lazy.
“Men who apologize to their wives just “to make a situation go away,” are trying to build a healthy marriage on the ostensibly firm foundation of lying to their wives. That is not a good strategy.” – Douglas Wilson