Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I’m Not Sorry

Elton John sang that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”, which is quite untrue.

We hear the word “sorry” dozens of times a day, usually about something entirely trivial. For those of us who are by nature conciliatory, “sorry” is actually a very easy word, one we bandy about reflexively the moment anyone near us starts to look tense. Even those who are dispositionally dominant and ordinarily insensitive to others learn quickly that faking regret can be useful in forging alliances and spreading influence, provided you don’t overdo it and come off looking weak.

Most of the time we say sorry, we are not sorry at all.

Some people say sorry regularly when they have done nothing wrong. They are not making a moral statement so much as they are signalling servility. Others refuse to say it on principle. They recognize that expressions of regret are frequently insincere and, throwing out baby and bathwater, stop apologizing entirely.

The Backstory

In Hebrew the word “sorry” is chalah, meaning chafed or rubbed raw. Figuratively it means to be grieved or sickened. In Greek it is lypeō, meaning sad or regretful. In Old English, as may be obvious, it meant “full of sorrow”. The Dutch zeerig and Swedish sårig both mean “full of sores”, which is probably not to be taken literally.

The expression “I’m sorry” is nowhere to be found in the Bible, unless you happen to be reading one of those paraphrases that were so popular in the early ’70s.

The word “sorry” appears on its own many times in most translations, but I’m not thinking so much about the actual state of being sorrowful, regretful or repentant. I’m much more interested in how we express those states of heart or will, and why it is we do it.

Apologizing for Evolutionary Advantage

Glenn Geher looks at it from a Darwinian perspective. He says apologizing is not something we do for the sake of the injured party, but primarily to improve our own situation. He says expressing regret is our instinctive way of trying to maintain the fiction that we can be counted on:
“Guilt and feeling sorry help motivate an individual to set things straight with others in his or her circle — helping him or her maintain a reputation as a potential altruist who can be counted on. Such a reputation is hugely important in succeeding in any human social group.”
Geher’s oversimplifying a bit, but I think he accurately describes the motive of a certain subset of apologizers. However, our generation has a tendency to see through insincerity. We often reject an apology that is too gratingly self-serving.

Christians and Apologies

It strikes me that there is nothing inherently Christian about saying, “I’m sorry”. It is a social nicety that too often lacks emotional content. Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil”. One thing that strongly implies is that his followers ought not to say things we don’t really mean. “I’m sorry” is actually an expression we could do with a great deal less of.

Sometimes sorry just doesn’t cut it.

Actually, the Christian for “I’m sorry” is “Will you please forgive me?”

Before “Please Forgive Me”

Before we say it, there are a few words that ought to precede it:
  • It may be necessary to explain that we have sinned, though if we use the prodigal son’s repentance as a model, the gory details are quite unnecessary: “I have sinned against heaven and before you” is perfectly adequate.
  • It may be necessary to explain the effect of the sin, though that may be perfectly clear. It is a humbling experience to say, “I am no longer worthy”, if we really mean it, but by doing so, we accept whatever consequences flow from that. We are putting ourselves in the hands of another.
  • It may be necessary to say what we intend to do about it; something like, “Treat me as one of your hired servants”. (I can’t help but notice, though, that the repentant son only thought this: he didn’t get a chance to say it, and his father declined to take him up on the attempted penance. Perhaps the acceptance of this possibility is more an attitudinal prerequisite than anything that needs saying.)
Of course none of this may be necessary if we are repeat offenders. If this is the tenth time I’ve sinned against the same person in exactly the same way, I’ve probably got the routine down. Likewise, if someone has been Christian enough to forgive you the same thing nine times already, he or she is unlikely to expect you to grovel.

What doesn’t precede “Please forgive me” in the Christian vocabulary?
  • A list of excuses. Those who make excuses for their behavior have not repented. They are merely looking for a ceasefire, not forgiveness.
  • A list of things the other person did that provoked you to sin in the first place. The person who says, “I’ll forgive you if you forgive me” is not genuinely repentant; he or she is simply looking to make a problem go away.
After “Please Forgive Me”

After the words “Please forgive me” should come deafening silence:
  • Silence, because a request for forgiveness ought never to be conditional. “Please forgive me … and” is one word too many.
  • Silence, because a request for forgiveness is distinctly un-trivial. It ought to matter to us whether forgiveness is actually extended to us when we request it. If we don’t stop to wait for the answer, we are saying we don’t think what we did was serious.
  • Silence, because when words are many, “transgression is not lacking”. If you keep babbling, you will almost surely make things worse.
  • Silence, because now the shoe is on the other foot. If we have genuinely asked for forgiveness, we have done everything we can possibly do. The rest is up to the Lord and the conscience of the person being asked. If that conscience is informed by scripture, like this verse:

    “Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

    … then there should be no problem, right?
  • Silence, because you never retract a request for forgiveness if it is not immediately granted, or if it is granted dismissively, or dealt with in some other way that seems offensive. If you retract, you didn’t mean it in the first place. “Please forgive me” means I’m asking for forgiveness even if you spit in my face.
The Better Way

Of course this is much better than a simple “sorry”. It has to be, since the Lord designed it to reestablish broken relationships both earthly and heavenly.

Today, sorry may simply mean “I regret there’s a problem” or “I fear the consequences of having you angry at me”, whereas “Please forgive me” means “I’M the problem, and I take this problem seriously”. “Sorry” might be appropriate as a courtesy when we bump in the street by accident, but it is wholly inadequate to mending the broken relationships we see all around us, even between believers.

How often do you get asked for forgiveness? How often do you ask others for it?

Sometimes sorry doesn’t cut it.

1 comment :

  1. "Sorry" really isn't the hardest word. As the axiom says, "Words are cheap." The hardest word to say -- and mean -- is "I was wrong." Add to that "I'm going to do everything I can to make it up to you," and "By God's grace, I'll never do it again."

    But humble pie is a hard slice to eat. But it's a taste we probably need to get used to.