When Sorry Doesn’t Cut It

I’ve just been through a day where I have felt a lot of anger at myself because my forgetfulness caused a lot of pain to someone else. I want to respect the privacy of the person who I hurt, so I’ll have to speak somewhat cryptically. I agreed to do something that I didn’t have the authority to agree to and I forgot to ask the person who did have the authority until it was too late. What makes it more serious is that because I’m a pastor and the person whom I let down doesn’t have much experience in church, my negligence has likely damaged this person’s relationship with God.

This afternoon, I wanted really badly to resolve the problem I had created. I got permission to do something that I thought would resolve it and I tried to get in touch with the person I had hurt. I called, texted, facebook-messaged, and even left a note on the door of this person’s apartment. Perhaps that makes me sound like a weirdo. Maybe it did more damage than good. In any case, I didn’t get any response and I’m realizing that I probably won’t. I’m hoping that the knot in my stomach might go away by tomorrow, but I’m also hoping at the same time that I will retain enough of the sting from this situation to do something substantial and systematic about my forgetfulness in the future.

This whole incident has caused me to contemplate the meaning of “I’m sorry” in our communications with other people. I’ve often thought of this phrase as a sort of equilibrizing valve that keeps the pressure from building in relationships. When you’re in a crowded bar and you bump into one big, beefy guy after another, you say “Sorry, sorry, sorry…” in order to defuse any possible tension before it comes up. Or when you actually get into a quarrel with another person and it’s hard to untangle who’s to blame for what, you say “I am so sorry,” overapologizing magnanimously in order to solicit a magnanimous overapology from the other person. Of course sometimes the other person takes advantage of you and says back, “You should be sorry,” without offering the reciprocal apology you were hoping to restore the world to equilibrium. Then your tone shifts pretty quickly into anger, and it turns out you weren’t all that sorry after all.

But what about when you really do feel like you’ve been a jerk and you’re not just trying to end a conflict with somebody? Perhaps a measure of whether you’re really sorry is if you don’t feel wronged when the other person doesn’t accept your apology, particularly if s/he doesn’t even allow you the martyrdom of getting reamed out but simply ignores you. Silence is the toughest response to receive when you feel like a jerk. Silence judges a lot more than hysterical shrieking or biting sarcasm could. So I’m trying to figure out what to do with the silence right now. I want it to somehow make me a better person. I guess the positive thing about it is it makes my sorry sorrowful rather than just socially appropriate. Can sorrow over our mistakes somehow sanctify us when it’s allowed to linger without resolution and redemption? Jesus does say, “Blessed are those that mourn,” and John Wesley thought that we should interpret this as referring to the mourning of our sins.

God’s grace shouldn’t be my excuse for saying “peace when there is no peace.” I’ve argued elsewhere that our assurance of salvation in Christ doesn’t exempt us from God’s judgment but rather empowers us to receive God’s judgment as a gift rather than a threat. Judgment is only unbearable when it’s the basis for rejection. God assures us of His unconditional loving acceptance not so that we will persist in hiding our sin from our eyes but so that we will boldly confront the flaws in our character that God wants to correct. One of the major shortcomings of Protestantism is our lack of any notion of penance, the Catholic sacrament by which believers are given a means of processing their sin and truly repenting for it. Just saying “God loves you anyway” doesn’t do much for someone who needs to have a time of sorrow in order to emerge from it as a more grateful, merciful person. When we say we’re sorry without feeling sorrow, we cannot be transformed by our repentance.

Protestants often turn repentance into a very mechanical, will-power-driven resolve not to make the same mistake again. Repentance is way more than that. The Greek word metanoia from which repentance is translated refers to a complete transformation of one’s perspective rather than just a dispassionate commitment to doing better. So I think repentance needs to include sorrow. Spending some time in sorrow helps me to hate the hurt that my mistakes have caused other people. You can’t know the sweetness of God’s mercy without having some notion of the gravity of what He’s forgiving. Sorrow is not a denial of God’s grace; it’s a critical part of how we come to appreciate it. So I’m going to try to accept the sorrow that comes with an unresolved conflict. I pray that God can use it to make me into a more sensitive and merciful person.

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