While attending a speaker conference in Arizona, I made a request of a friend and in doing so, unknowingly put her in a difficult, awkward position. When I realized what I’d done, I pulled my friend aside and began apologizing, tears in my eyes, genuinely sorrowful for what I’d done.
When my friend saw how my gut was in knots over this, with a tone of deep concern and urgency, she leaned forward, grabbed both of my arms looked me in the eye and said both loudly and firmly, “I forgive you!” I was completely taken aback by that response.
Not only did I not get to the point of asking for her forgiveness, I was not aware of how deeply I needed to be forgiven, how much I needed to hear those words, “I forgive you.”
The Importance of Asking for Forgiveness
Popular culture emphasizes the need to express sorrow when we have wronged another. We begin this indoctrination with young children. James hits Tommy with a stick while playing together, resulting in a shouting match of youthful insults.
As parents, we intervene saying, “Now James, tell Tommy you’re sorry.” Without looking at him, and sporting his best scowl, James mutters something of an “I’m sorry” to Tommy, and play continues. Problem solved, right?
No, not really.
When we carry this into adulthood, the problem is exacerbated, resulting in broken friendships, wrecked marriages, parent/child disputes, and grudges we nurse for years.
Imagine this scenario. A husband speaks harshly to his wife and later expresses sorrow to her for having done so. What is her response? What is the expectation? Typically, the wife will lower her eyes, let loose an inaudible sigh, and say, “It’s okay.”
Is it okay?
If so, what’s okay?
Is it okay to speak harshly with one another? No, it is not.
Is she saying, “We’re okay?” Doubtful.
Is she saying, “I forgive you?” No, they’re not the same thing at all.
What I suspect she’s saying is, “I’ll get over it. Let’s just move on for now.”
Expressing the phrase, “I’m sorry,” has become something of a default abdication of responsibility. I’ve said “I’m sorry,” even if it was less than sincere, and thus I no longer carry that burden of any obligation. How often have we seen the “I’m sorry,” muttered, while the tension persists until one explodes onto the other saying, “Look, I said ‘I’m sorry!’ What else do you want from me?”
In contemporary practice, when we have sinned against another and uttered the required phrase, we then believe the ball is in their court. They must do something now, something like get over it. This is true to such an extent that we feel a level of discomfort when there is a pregnant pause, or a non-response from the other party in response to our utterance of the required phrase.
Party one says, “I’m sorry.” There is the expectation of a response. Right? I said my part, now you say yours.
A New Approach
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. – James 5:16, ESV
A phrase I have used for years, to the point of annoyance with some, is that we need to “own our sin.” What I mean is, we need to reach a point of humility that allows us to shed our smugness and pride, a point that allows us to embrace the reality – “Yeah, I did that,” or “I said that and it hurt you.”
We own our sin, and when we can do that, we reach a point of godly sorrow that brings repentance, a repentance that seeks reconciliation with the one we have injured.
From that baseline, the phrase “I’m sorry,” should always have appended to it, “Will you please forgive me?” With that addendum, the ball does move to the other party’s court. They have been asked for something and they can now respond. Either they will forgive, or they will choose not to do so.
A serendipity to this approach is that it relieves the hurt party of the obligation to say, “It’s okay,” because it isn’t okay. But it is forgivable, and that makes us okay.
Saying “I’m sorry,” is easy. Asking for forgiveness is difficult because it requires owning our sin, and it requires a significant dose of humility. But the more often we do it, the easier it becomes, the more natural it feels. And you know you’re close to mastering the concept when you can humble yourself enough to ask you own child to forgive you.
Asking for forgiveness, granting forgiveness, and experiencing the restored relationships that result from that transaction are at the core of our shared faith. We ask God for forgiveness on a regular basis. He grants us that forgiveness, and as a result, we find relationship with our heavenly Father, with the incarnate Son, and the indwelling Spirit of God.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Victoriously in Christ!
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