I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I have hurt many people who are very close to me. I have made choices, often, to put my needs before the needs of others. And I am not just talking about twenty years ago before I started following Jesus. I am talking about just in the last week.
These choices of mine happen in my role as father to four sons or as a husband to my wife or co-worker to colleagues. Everyday these relationships are ripe with opportunities to choose self over something better. I do it all the time. And it’s not always big stuff, but more likely little things.
- Grumpy me giving a cold shoulder to my wife
- A harsh response to one of my sons
- Being 15 minutes late to the same meeting at work, again.
Each of these things were actions that I chose. And in each of them I am not going to say that I’m sorry. Rather I will ask “will you forgive me?”
Some people use these two phrases interchangeably. Not so here. A few years back it was suggested to me that it helps to make a distinction between saying “I’m sorry” and asking forgiveness. The distinction being that you say that you say you are sorry when the situation is out of your control and ask forgiveness when the fault is your own. The example I always give is being late for a meeting:
+ “I’m sorry” example. I leave plenty early to arrive to the meeting on time, but encounter an accident on the road and am detoured. Something out of my control caused me to be late. In this situation, I arrive to the meeting and say “I’m sorry for being late, I hit a detour.”
+ “Please forgive me” example. I know exactly how long it takes to get to the next meeting and deliberately choose not to leave on time. Perhaps I am getting just one more thing done (or three) or staying in the shower too long or not planning ahead well. Whatever the case may be - each of these reasons stem from choices I have made. In this situation I arrive late to the meeting and say “Please forgive me for being late, I didn’t manage my time well.”
And here’s where it gets awkward. Most people don’t know what to do with the “please forgive me” bomb. What I am hoping they will say back is “I forgive you.” What often happens is they respond as though I said “I’m sorry.” So, naturally they say “it’s ok” (but it’s really not) or “no problem” (but it really is). When I say “please forgive me” I am admitting fault and when they say back “I forgive you” they are saying “yep, you screwed up but I am not going to hold that against you.” Trust increases and a relationship is strengthened.
I think this is what can happen every time we don’t settle for the standard “I’m sorry”, especially when it is clearly our choices that caused hurt or pain for someone else. While a dictionary wouldn’t necessarily make this distinction I’ve seen the wisdom of taking one more minute to consider - should I do more than simply say “I’m sorry.”
Most of the things I need to apologize for begin with decisions that I have made, therefore I ask forgiveness much more often than I say “I’m sorry.” And this is why I very rarely say it.
(UPDATE) A number of people have rightly commented that there is in fact great value in saying to someone else “I’m sorry.” I agree. It gives words to the remorse that someone should feel (and express) when apologizing. My concern is that it not stop there.
In the interest of being brief / provocative / clever I probably overstated my case, as though there is something wrong with the phrase “I’m sorry.” There isn’t anything wrong with it, except that when left on it’s own it is often incomplete. In fact, just a few days ago I apologized to a friend of mine and said “I’m sorry for what I did. It was wrong. Please forgive me.” This allowed me to genuinely express the sadness I had for my actions, identify them as wrong, and ask for his forgiveness. This is the approach that I want to take, not simply not saying that I’m sorry.
In fact with my sons my wife and I are constantly explaining what it truly means to say that you are sorry. We remind them that it is an expression of the sadness at hurting another joined by the resolve not to do it again while acknowledging the ‘wrongness’ of the decision. And of course we encourage them to finish it off by asking for forgiveness. :)