The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 6:16:23

Not whether I meant to offend, but whether I did offend: that is the question

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 07, 2014

A couple of recent articles about wrongdoing and forgiveness together with some conversations, both in person and online, have revived my ever-ready ruminating on this subject.

I keep being surprised and disturbed and taken aback by how much basic misunderstanding there is out there, even among otherwise mature and thoughtful Christians.

Let's take a case: person A (we'll call her Ann) is offended by person B (we'll call him Bob.)

Ann says to Bob, "That offended me." And Bob responds, "I certainly didn't mean any offense!"

For many (especially many offenders), this should be the end of the matter. He hadn't meant to offend; time for her to forgive and move on. 

But, notice that the real issue has not been addressed at all. I mean, the question of whether Bob did, in fact, offend Ann. Did he cross a line? Did he wound her? That problem has been evaded, not resolved. 

Isn't it so that most of our offenses aren't meant to be offensive? That is to say, our aim isn't to hurt another person. Most of us aren't villains, just sinners. Our aim, when we trespass, is to flatter or pleasure or protect or enrich or aggrandize Self. That other people end up hurt is the "unintended consequence" of our egotism.

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm (that they cause) does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves”. ~ T.S. Eliot

If I tell a cruel joke to get the flattering attention of a laugh, I may be able to say with all sincerity to an offended friend that I meant no offense. But how is that to the point? Am I innocent of wrong therefore? No. I was offensive. I should apologize and amend my behavior. If my children grow up wounded by emotional neglect, is it because I wanted to hurt them? No, it's because I wanted that daily bottle of wine, or because I wanted to make a lot of money or win acclaim, or because I was too absorbed in myself and my own interests to give them the attention they needed. I didn't want them to be hurt by my selfishness, but they were. Does the man who has an affair set out to ruin his wife's life? Seldom. More often, he hates the thought of hurting her. But he wants what he wants, and unfortunately, he can only get it at her expense. 

This is the structure of sin and wrong. We grab for what we want, regardless of the wants, needs, feelings, concerns, prerogatives or rights of another. It is the opposite of love, whereby we restrain or sacrifice the appetites of the ego to serve the good of others.

Now, needless to say (I hope!), the fact that Ann says she was offended doesn't necessarily mean Bob is guilty of an offense. 

Sometimes we take offense when there isn't any, objectively. 

Once in an online discussion about the Legion, one of their defenders took umbrage at something I said (not about him, but about the Legion) and demanded an apology. I couldn't give him one, because what I had said was what I really believed and meant to say. I had said it because I thought it needed to be said, to clear the air and help the Legion's victims. In other words, I was conscientiously aiming at Good and Truth, according to my sincere best lights. I could regret that he was hurt, but I couldn't apologize as if I'd done something wrong. I hadn't.

I have known people to take offense at the very fact that they are accused of being offensive. "How dare you accuse me?!" Well, sometimes we dare because we think we have to—for someone else's sake, or for our own integrity's sake.

But, being complicated creatures, partially blind, afflicted with denial and illusion, we can't always tell right off the bat if a claim of offense is a real offense or not. We have to examine each case as it's presented to our conscience.

If Bob cares about Ann and his relationship with her—if he even just takes her seriously as a person—he would do well to reflect, and ask himself sincerely: Is she right? Was I offensive? Did I cross a line? Was I out of bounds? Was I too thoughtless?

Before we can justly clear ourselves of a concrete charge of wrong, there are at least four "zones of freedom and responsibility" that need to be sincerely examined: two on the objective plane and two on the subjective.


1) Did I break a law (especially the moral law)?

2) Did I cross a boundary, i.e. intrude on someone else's territory or seize a prerogative that belongs to him?


1) Did I intend evil or harm?

2) Was I acting selfishly? Was I more concerned with myself and what I wanted than with what was due to another in this situation?

We don't have to intend harm or break a law to damn ourselves to hell or ruin a relationship. We only have to stay locked in the prison of egotism into which we're all born, and from which we urgently need to be saved.

Salvation is through repentance and grace—repentance from us toward the one we've offended; grace from Him (or him or her) toward us. There's no other way.