Many years ago, many seasons past, bleary eyed and staggering through parenting three kids under the age of twelve, James and I heard a teaching that embedded itself in the fiber of our family: “I’m sorry” should be reserved for careless but innocent mistakes, like accidentally bumping into or spilling something. But when we’ve done something to someone else because of sin in our hearts, nothing will do but, “Will you forgive me?”
Simple semantics? No. The difference isn’t in the language used. It’s in the attitude of the heart.
Sorry simply blows it off. No brokenness required. No true sorrow over what’s been done. It appeases. To say, “Will you forgive me?” requires repentance. Humility. Others-mindedness that comes from genuine sorrow for one’s words or behavior. It’s the difference between offenses piling up like water behind a dam, pressurized and volatile, and hurts washing away like water under a bridge. “Will you forgive me?” reaches to the injuries of the heart and cleanses. Just like the blood of Jesus does for us.
Yet, when I’m guilty, it’s a whole lot easier to vent a casual sorry than it is to vulnerably confess my sin and seek forgiveness. There’s something about guilt that invites pride, welcome or not, and exposing ourselves is risky. I can’t tell you how many simple infractions have escalated to full-out explosions because of my unwillingness to come clean. Using deflection to make it about the other person and not me, when a simple, “Will you forgive me?” douses threatening embers before they swell to dangerous flames.
In the same way, may embers have been extinguished when any one of us simply stopped and asked for forgiveness.
I don’t even remember the topic of the fight. Stiff necked in the laundry room folding clothes from the dryer, the words, “Why are you being so rude today?” set my emotions in a tailspin and my defenses firmly in place. I was ready to make it all about him, and I was doing a pretty good job, in my opinion. But he wasn’t buying it. The more I tried, the more defenseless I truly was, and a relaxed evening at home hung in the balance. The Holy Spirit would not allow me a moment of peace as I finished the laundry. I slinked into my husband’s office, set aside any legitimate complaint I might have had against him, and simply asked him to forgive me for the way I was acting toward him. No excuses. No justification. Just forgive me.
Restoration was immediate.
Godly sorrow produced repentance that led to salvation. Deliverance, preservation, and safety, just as Paul says it will in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 (KJV):
Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
The recipients of Paul’s letter experienced sadness, uneasiness, regret, and grief, but what made him exceedingly glad was that it produced repentance: a change of mind as it appears in one who heartily amends with abhorrence of one’s past sins (metanoia and its root, donemetanoeō, www.blueletterbible.com, 2 Corinthians 7:9). It’s the difference between sorrow because you were caught doing wrong versus sorrow for the sin itself. Not self-contrived sorrow, but the working of the Holy Spirit in us.
And when the Holy Spirit is behind the sorrow, pain, grief, annoyance, affliction, and mourning that leads us to a change of mind with regards to our sin, then comes salvation, sōtēria in the Greek, which encompasses “deliverance, preservation, safety, salvation from the molestation of enemies; in an ethical sense, that which concludes to the soul's safety or salvation; salvation as the present possession of all true Christians; future salvation, the sum of benefits and blessings which the Christians, redeemed from all earthly ills, will enjoy after the visible return of Christ from heaven in the consummated and eternal kingdom of God” (www.blueletterbible.com, 2 Corinthians 7:10).
Feeling bad about what we’ve done isn’t enough. All humanity is capable of sorrow, pain, and grief over wrong actions, including those who are hostile to the cause of Christ. But their sorrow only leads to death, thanatos in the Greek, “ the death of the body with the implied idea of future misery in hell; the miserable state of the wicked dead in hell; in the widest sense, death comprising all the miseries arising from sin, as well physical death as the loss of a life consecrated to God and blessed in him on earth, to be followed by wretchedness in hell”; from the word thnēskō, which refers to being spiritually dead (www.blueletterbible.com, 2 Corinthians 7:10).
In other words, sorry produces death. It piles on offenses and eventually kills relationships. It blows off that which needs balm, leaving the injured to lick their own wounds. “Will you forgive me?” leads to salvation. It’s seeking forgiveness as evidence of repentance. With Jesus. With each other. Husbands. Children. Parents. Friends. Co-workers.
As imperfect as my family is, we have lots of opportunities to use those four words. As wrapped up as I get in my own world, I have ample opportunity to plead the quartet outside the walls of my home. But that’s what makes our families and friendships indestructible: the work of the Holy Spirit in us to bring us to repentance that leads to salvation.
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:22-27).
Sorryis sorry. Don’t give place to the devil, my friend. Forgive and be forgiven as you become wholly His today.