Two of the most used, and abused, words in any language.
We’ve all seen it happen:
An offender offers the obligatory “sorry” to their offended – mostly just to get them (or the situation) off their back.
I’ve seen it with children frequently: We say, “Jenny, tell Johnny you’re sorry for biting him.” But Jenny is not sorry. She feels justified because Johnny did (fill in the blank), but we insist. “It was wrong to bite Johnny. You owe him an apology. Now tell him you’re sorry.” Jenny still isn’t sorry and you have other things to do. “Jenny! Tell Johnny you’re sorry for biting him or you will (fill in the blank with some consequence of not saying “sorry”).” The word “sorry” becomes Jenny’s ticket out of this mess, and getting out of the mess is worth more than maintaining her stance of justification, so she, begrudgingly, complies. “Sorry for biting you.”
But everyone present knows it’s a sham.
Children are not the only ones who are guilty of this. And, since I’ve been thinking on this and being more aware of how frequently it happens, we adults don’t seem to grow up and get much better at hiding our contempt or the ruse.
Who hasn’t heard (or been) a couple in the midst of a disagreement (where there really is something to be sorry about) where the guilty party is finally convinced that they need to admit it and do the right thing but end up much like the Jenny and Johnny above? “OK, I’m sorry,” but we all know that’s a lie.
Or, worse still, there is a shouted, “I’m sorry!” with an expressed or implied, “now can you just drop it!” attached to the communication.
I’m sure we all have stories we could tell where we’ve witnessed it. But if we’re honest, we must also confess that we’ve been “that” guy (or girl), too.
I ask, dear reader, because I wonder if real forgiveness can ever be offered is there is never real sorrow over our wrongs?
Jenny didn’t simply bite Johnny. She injured his body, sure, but she also injured his person as well. She bullied him. She devalued him. She placed her wants, her desires, her will above him – which communicates that he is worthless to her. She violated his right to suffer no undeserved harm. She abused him.
Can a muttered “sorry for biting you” ever express what really needs to be expressed to him without her realizing that she has done far more to him than leaving teeth marks? (And yes, parenting a child’s heart is incredibly hard and takes much more time – but it is critically important.)
The same is true in adult situations. When we offend or hurt someone, can the two words, “I’m sorry” ever really be enough? Can that phrase convey heartfelt remorse over the wrong and the collateral damage that ensued without some evidence of sorrow?
I think not.
The original meaning of the word “sorry” is overflowing with a very different tone. Old dictionaries use the following words to define “sorry”:
“distressed, grieved, full of sorrow”
“pained, wretched, worthless, poor”
These words paint a fuller picture of what “I’m sorry” ought to convey. They get to the heart of the matter, don’t they? Rather than a “can we get this over with” mentality, or “I’m sorry if you’re upset about this” attitude, “I’m sorry” should convey, “I am grieved and full of sorrow that I hurt you. I am pained that my wrongdoing has affected you so profoundly. I wish with all of my heart that I had not done it, because I love you and don’t ever want to see you hurt – least of all by me.”
But we don’t really recognize that our insults are damaging and costly beyond the seconds of time they take to express them. We don’t acknowledge that our refusal to consider someone else’s needs is hurtful and reckless far beyond inconvenience. We don’t want to admit that our threats or control or indifference express so, so much more than thoughtlessness or carelessness might excuse.
Instead, we defend our wretched behavior. Or we justify it by blaming someone or something else.
Why do we do that?
Wouldn’t it be better to say, “No! I’m not sorry!”?
At least if we did that we wouldn’t be adding deceit to the list of our transgressions.
Shouldn’t we at least be able to acknowledge that until we really are grieved over what we’ve done to the other person – in all its fullness – that what we are really communicating is that we are valuing ourselves – our reasons- our excuses – our justification – our position – our status – as more important and worth more than the other person?
You might ask me why I care about this enough to lay it out here.
I have two reasons: The first is that more and more I see around me a thousand, maybe ten thousand ways we avoid the “little” conflicts in our lives to our peril. We ignore the things that we don’t want to deal with for a variety of reasons, but they all boil down to this: we don’t think the other people in lives are worth rolling up our sleeves and getting messy over. In this area, we don’t want to spend the time or the energy it takes to try to work things out with someone who has offended us, or whom we’ve offended, so we “let it go.”
But it doesn’t go away – it builds. It gets added to the next time and the next until we erupt and don’t even know where to begin to try to make things right. Relationships are destroyed over the building up of a thousand unresolved opportunities to say, “I’m really, truly, honestly sorry for hurting you.”
But the second, and infinitely more important reason is this:
Can forgiveness ever be ours if we do not sorrow over our sins? Can we possibly expect that an All-Knowing God is fooled by our “sorry if I upset you” words when we all know full well there is no real sorrowful remorse? Can repentance ever be genuine if there is not also sorrow?
Psalm 51: 16-17 says:
For you will not delight in sacrifice (or an obligatory “sorry”),
or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering (or an, “I’m sorry if this upsets you”).
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (parenthetical statements added)
Learn what being sorry means, friends. Teach your children to understand it as soon as they are able. And for the sake of the Gospel in your own life and in the lives of those around you, be quick to see the profound and magnificent work that can be wrought through a heart that has learned what it is to be “pained, wretched, distressed, grieved, and full of sorrow.” All of heaven rejoices over one such as this.