- Chapter 10 -
- "I am sorry."
- "I apologize."
- "Please forgive me. I have offended you."
To say, "I am sorry" can be very sincere and, depending on how it is said, communicate a depth of meaning. However, it is a phrase which, by such common usage, has lost some of its meaning for a serious occasion. It can be used several times a day. As you brush up against somebody in a crowd, it is customary to say, "I'm sorry." But it has been my observation that frequently when people say, "I am sorry," they really mean, "I am sorry I got caught."
"I apologize" generally has more significance, and there are many occasions when it is appropriate, but again it depends on how it is done. On one occasion a man agreed to apologize to my secretary. He began his so-called apology, "You misunderstood me." This immediately implied the secretary was at fault. Naturally, an argument erupted, and the situation grew worse than it was before. A simple rephrasing could have saved the situation, although it would also have called for a difference in attitude, "I apologize. I did not make myself clear."
One of the most gracious responses to an apology I have ever heard resulted from an accident in a fast-food restaurant when one of our daughters spilled a big glop on the floor. She apologized profusely to the young man who came to clean it up, but he smiled and said, "Don't apologize. If you didn't spill, I wouldn't have a job."
For a more significant and serious occasion, it can be helpful and appropriate to say, "I offended you when I made that negative remark about you, especially in front of others. Please forgive me." Or, on another occasion, "I know I hurt your feelings last night with the things I said about the dinner. I am truly sorry. Please forgive me."
In asking forgiveness, the effect is diminished, if not completely nullified, when a person says, "I will forgive you if you will forgive me." This implies equal fault, and the other person may not feel that way about it at all. Such an expression can frequently be a stimulant for a continuation of the argument. Admitting a wrong and asking for forgiveness is obviously more effective. And it is certainly more effective if a person does not try to apportion blame or fault. Suppose the other individual is 90% at fault and you are only 10%. Ask for forgiveness for the 10%, and it is very important to define it. Just "Please forgive me for whatever I did wrong." is not the answer. There is an implication in such a remark that the person is not sure he or she did anything wrong, especially if it can't be identified.
Suppose there is a big blow-up about getting to school and work on time. The kids can't find their socks; the alarm clock didn't go off; it is raining and someone has taken Dad's umbrella. Tempers flare and accusations abound.
"Why didn't you set the alarm properly?"
"Did you take my umbrella?"
"I told you kids to put your socks where you could find them."
The situation gets worse when, as so often happens under such emotional circumstances, people start reviewing the others' transgressions from the past. Mom and/or Dad say things they wish they hadn't. Everyone may feel abused.
Regarding such circumstances, there is a saying which bears frequent repeating. THE RELATIONSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE ISSUE AT HAND. RESTORE THE RELATIONSHIP. No one is completely in the right on such an occasion. There is something each has done wrong or each has caused a hurt. Identify it and ask for forgiveness. Any person can begin the reconciliation. With a statement like, "Lucy (it could be wife or husband or any of the children), I am sorry for my anger this morning and the harsh things I said. Will you forgive me?" Of course, what usually happens on such occasions is that the other person(s) also asks for forgiveness and reconciliation takes place.
A case of forgiveness stands out in my memory. When I was a sophomore in high school I decided to skip all my classes after lunch and left the school grounds. Coach Lucksinger saw me and called for me to return. I did a dumb thing. I ran.
Now Coach Lucksinger was not the track coach without good reason. He had been a star runner in college, and he could have caught me easily if he had wanted to. Instead, he recognized me and bided his time for disciplinary action. I began to realize this was the case and that I was in trouble.
I thought of a plan. I went back to school, and posted myself by his office door and waited for him to return. As soon as he got closer, I blurted out, "Coach I was the one who ran from you today and I'm sorry." Coach looked at me steadily, obviously deciding what he was going to do while I quaked in my shoes.
Finally he said, "You have done the honorable thing. I won't punish you this time, but don't do it again."
It should be added here that there are some occasions when the issue is more important than the relationship, but not as many as people think. For example, if little children are in the habit of running out into the street, it is necessary to resort to the most stringent measures. Otherwise, the relationship may completely cease to exist.
Many people seem to think that it is a sign of weakness to ask for forgiveness. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength. It is so helpful in relationships, particularly when there is no shared responsibility or blame. All of us have done harmful and even reprehensible things to others for which there was no justification. Frequently, these are the occasions when it is hardest to summon up one's courage to ask for forgiveness.
The most difficult seven words to say can be the most healing to a relationship, "I was wrong. Will you forgive me?"
Who have you offended?
At a conference once we were challenged to think of people in our lives we had offended in a major way, or even to a lesser degree, and seek them out to ask for forgiveness. We were encouraged to see people personally, or use the telephone if necessary but not to write because a written record of a wrong can be misused.
I resolved to identify such situations in my own life, and look up the people for the purpose of reconciliation. It turned out to be one of the most beneficial experiences I have ever had. Responses were very positive, although there was sometimes surprise, as you can imagine. Good feelings and healing resulted.
One of the more difficult assignments -- or so it seemed at first but one which turned out to be the most beneficial -- was to ask our children for forgiveness. The idea was greeted with shock on the part of many. "ASK MY CHILDREN FOR FORGIVENESS?" Yes, ask your children for forgiveness. Every parent in this world knows of something for which he or she should make amends. An even more shocking thought is that if you cannot think of anything, ask your children.
I will never forget son Bryan's reaction when I asked him for forgiveness regarding a certain matter. His face lit up, and he immediately agreed. It was clear we both felt good about it, as if there was some barrier which had been lifted.
But then there was Beverly! One time I punished her excesively. Even though she clearly realized that I had been wrong, when I asked for her forgiveness, she readily granted it, and my guilt was relieved. However, on another occasion, I had betrayed a trust very much involving her, and when I asked for forgiveness for this, there was a long silence, which was very painful to me. My pain was not any the less when she responded, "I could have expected that from anybody else but you." She thought for a while and then did give me her forgiveness, although she said it was hard.
There was something in my life I felt guilty about and which used to pop into my mind every once in a while. I could not forget it. In sophomore year at college, I took advantage of a friend and classmate in a business transaction. Although it involved a very modest amount, I still felt guilty. After being challenged to think of such occasions in my life, I looked up Ned Stack in the Alumni Directory and called him. Not only was he prepared to forgive me, he did not even remember it. However, he was pleased that I had called, told me all about himself, and a friendship was renewed. I also felt relieved of my guilt.
It is what it does for you.
An important aspect of forgiveness is not just that of asking others for forgiveness, but in forgiving others in our hearts even though they have not asked for it. A frequent retort to this suggestion is, "They don't deserve it." It is not a matter of their deserving it. IT IS NOT WHAT IT DOES FOR THEM; IT IS WHAT IT DOES FOR YOU. Unwillingness to forgive creates bitterness, and that brings about unhappiness and corrodes the soul. It can also have unfortunate physical effects.
Millions of people pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" (Matt. 6:12). Do they realize that this means, "Lord, forgive my sins to the same degree and in the same measure that I am forgiving other people in my life (Matt. 6:14-15)?" That is a startling thought for many.
Suppose you should say in an appropriate gathering, with your family, for example, "We are going to have two minutes of silence, and I want you to think of all the people in your life whom you have not forgiven, not just people in the present, but people who have died, maybe years ago." Then after two minutes what if you added, "I would like to ask how many of you are willing to pray, 'Lord forgive me my sins, but only to the same extent and to the same measure as I have forgiven others' -- then list the people you have thought of"?
"But you don't know what he did to me!" is another frequent response. George who has been struggling for years to forgive his sister Claire, now deceased, is an example of this. She said the most outrageous things to him: "You should be more like your father and less like your mother." "You caused Uncle Jake's bankruptcy." "Don't send your daughter to that school. It is for ladies." "I don't know what happened but it is bound to be your daughter's fault." George says that the memory is fading as a result of his effort to put it all behind him, and forgiveness is possible, but it has been difficult, especially as there was no repentance on the part of Claire before she died. But the important point is that the worse the trespass, the more important is the forgiveness.
This is not just a religious concept. It applies to every human heart. Resentment and bitterness, real and imagined, about what people did or said to you in the past are crippling to your body and injurious to your enjoyment of life. Let it go. Clear it out of your heart. Forgive them.
If you ask a person for forgiveness and your request is refused, you have done your best. Such an individual may belong to that class of miserable mortals who state, as if there were some virtue in their position, "I will never forgive and never forget."