“Say you’re sorry!”
Those are the words most little kids hear from their parents when they have done something wrong. It is what I was taught to say when I was growing up, and it is what I taught my own children to say when they were out of line. It wasn’t until I was at a Bible study several years ago that my thoughts on the appropriateness of those words was challenged. The lady leading the study said in their home no one was allowed to say those words when they did something wrong; instead, they were taught to ask for forgiveness. They were taught to say “please forgive me” instead of “I’m sorry” because saying sorry isn’t owning up to anything; it isn’t admitting guilt. I can say “I’m sorry” and mean “I’m sorry I got caught” or “I’m sorry I didn’t hit you harder” or whatever else comes to mind.
When I ask for forgiveness, I am admitting that I need to be forgiven. I am admitting that I have done wrong—that I have sinned. And believe me, the first time I applied that principle it wasn’t easy. I had to swallow my pride. I had to confess my sin before I could ask forgiveness. Embarrassing? Oh my, yes. Humbling? Absolutely. But also healing. Forgiveness was obtained and a dear, enduring friendship sealed.
This doesn’t mean that a person saying “I’m sorry” could never be sincere; it is certainly possible and likely that there have been countless times when those words have had the full weight of contrition behind them. There are also other times when those words are appropriate: “I am so sorry for your loss.” “I’m sorry you didn’t get that promotion you worked so hard for.” “I’m sorry you missed the bus.”
But it is just so easy to hide behind that phrase and not own up to guilt. “I’m sorry if you were hurt” means absolutely nothing when what should be said is, “I have sinned against you and hurt you; please forgive me.” It isn’t the easy thing, but it is essential that believers humble themselves, admit their sins, and seek forgiveness. Just imagine what a difference that would make in the church.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).