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When a Gift Is Not Enough

From the series Peacemaking in China

“We know that confession and apology are important to God and critical for relational health, but is a verbal apology really necessary?” I heard this question raised so often at peacemaking trainings in Chinese contexts that I started including a case study to discuss it. How would you advise the church leader in the following scenario?

A church leader publicly scolded a church sister in a rather strong voice about being lazy. Afterwards, the sister stopped coming to church. Others went and comforted her and encouraged her to come back. She finally came back, but her relationship with this church leader remained distant.

What do you think this church leader should do as a first step to restore the relationship with this church sister?

a) Treat her to a meal
b) Give her a gift
c) Verbally apologize with sincerity
d) A combination of a, b, or c, or something else

While participants’ answers have varied, one response has been consistent: a sincere, verbal apology would make a significant difference in this situation. They often suggest coupling the verbal apology with a combination of treating to a meal, giving a gift of some kind, prayer, or some other action.

The consistent response from Chinese people that a verbal apology is needed fascinates me. An action-only apology doesn’t seem to adequately convey the confession—the admission of wrong that people, Chinese or non-Chinese, want to hear. When it comes to receiving an apology, we often want to hear a verbal apology. Yet, how often do we personally avoid giving a verbal apology when we have messed up? We choose to bring our spouse tea instead. We go out of our way to help a colleague at work. We intentionally compliment that person at church. Doing something extra for someone to demonstrate that we know we messed up feels much less embarrassing, shameful, and awkward than verbally confessing and apologizing.

Modeling Apologizing

Many Chinese believers have never seen a verbal apology modeled in their family situations, so they continue the pattern of apologizing through actions rather than expressing a verbal apology. While he was growing up, Liu Haifeng was only exposed to and used the following action-apology method:

If you and I have a conflict and it seems that I am in the wrong, I will proactively help you with something to apologize, but I will never say, “I’m sorry.” 1

For example, if I saw my older sister cooking, and we had been in a conflict where I was in the wrong, I would apologize by saying, “Does that need a little salt? I’ll get the salt for you.”

Then I would check her expression. If her face still looked dark, or if she didn’t look at me at all, or if she said, “Go away!” then I knew things hadn’t blown over yet. But if her expression was somewhat warm, friendly, and demonstrating goodwill, then I knew that things had returned to a good enough place relationally.

When Liu Haifeng shared this example with me, I was intrigued and asked him, “Does this method work? Does it really mend the relationship?” He laughed and replied, “It has a little bit of an effect because in the surrounding environment, everyone behaves this way.”

But Liu Haifeng went on to say that this type of apology doesn’t resolve the problem:

Even though we say that we have forgotten about the situation, in fact, no one has forgotten about it. We just aren’t willing to mention it again. The next time we run into the same thing, we will argue again. Not only that, when we argue, we will bring up the details from the previous time.

This type of action apology, without a sincere verbal expression of apology, is commonplace but doesn’t deal with the root issue; it simply perpetuates the conflict pattern.

After marrying his wife, a woman who highly values hearing a verbal apology, Liu Haifeng realized his familiar action-only method of expressing apology and regret wouldn’t satisfy her. When he asked her, “Do I have to speak out the words ‘I’m sorry’? You already know that I am expressing my apology and regret, isn’t that enough?” she responded, “Yes, you do. Only when you speak out the words do I know that you truly are sorry for what you did; then my heart is at peace again.”

I have talked with many Chinese Christians who, like Liu Haifeng, have told me, “I used to not really be able to verbally apologize,” but after studying and practicing biblical peacemaking, they are now able to do so. As a summary to both his growing up experience of apologizing and his married life experiences, Liu Haifeng described his newly formed perspective to me:

I think a verbal apology can more directly let the other person know of my apology and regret. When I use a friendly way of doing some action or say a few words unrelated to the conflict, it is very difficult for these actions to enter into her heart. But, if I give a simple apology, it connects directly with her heart emotions and more effectively defuses the emotions. Even so, an apology must be accompanied by actions. A verbal apology and actions cannot be separated from each other.

Giving a verbal confession-apology that includes a sincere expression of sorrow, remorse, or regret for something you have said or done, coupled together with a change in your behavior, has the potential to make a significant difference in your relationships.2

Note: This blog post contains content from Jolene’s forthcoming book: Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships.


  1. The account of Liu Haifeng’s (pseudonym) story in this post is from an author interview that took place in 2019.
  2. Those I interviewed, like Liu Haifeng, had learned the Seven A’s of Biblical Confession (see below) found in Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker. This specific list was pulled from RW360, “Seven A’s of a Biblical Confession—Get the Log Out of Your Eye,” accessed December 17, 2021,

    1. Address everyone involved (all those whom you affected)
    2. Avoid if, but, and maybe (do not try to excuse your wrongs)
    3. Admit specifically (both attitudes and actions)
    4. Acknowledge the hurt (express sorrow for hurting someone)
    5. Accept the consequences (such as making restitution)
    6. Alter your behavior (change your attitudes and actions)
    7. Ask for forgiveness (and allow for time)

    Note: Not every relationship or situation needs the same type of confession and apology. The severity of the offense plays a part in determining how much needs to be said and done to restore a relationship.

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Jolene Kinser

Jolene Kinser

Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio

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