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Just say ‘I’m sorry’

May 1999 | by Eric Wright

Kassandra grimaced. Tears began to well up in her eyes. The problem? A little matter of forgiveness. She had just walloped one of her sisters and her mother was urging her, ‘All I want you to do is tell Adrianna you’re sorry’. From across the room I could see resistance stiffening her body. Kassandra tried every weapon in her four-year-old arsenal to avoid saying those two little words.

‘Kassandra, you’re not alone with that problem’, I thought, as I remembered how difficult I had found apologising to my wife, Mary Helen, a few days previously. Apologising? Asking forgiveness? It should not be a big deal. Just a few simple words: ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘ I shouldn’t have acted that way. Please forgive me’. A kiss and a hug, and suddenly the storm clouds would be gone. The sun would shine again. So beneficial — but so difficult.

Points to ponder

Consider the following facts.

1. Seventy per cent of respondents vote that baseball hero Robbie Allomar should not be forgiven for spitting at an umpire.

2. While reviewing the Watergate Scandal on CBS, Dan Rather ventures the view that if Nixon had admitted wrongdoing and asked the American people for forgiveness, he would have survived.

3. Ann Landers shares a letter from a grieving mother whose son stopped talking to his sister ten years earlier. He discovers his terrible mistake when his sister is dying from a terminal illness.

We expect these kinds of reactions in the world outside church walls. But how are things among the followers of Christ?

4. When a favourite project is rejected, a deaconess stops going to church and takes up tennis.

5. The chairman of the nomination committee is told, ‘Don’t put them on the same committee. Their families have never got along since their fathers disagreed on the building project in ’65’.

6. A middle-aged woman approached her pastor concerning reconciliation with her husband. She claimed that they were both Christians, but that harsh words after a quarrel led to twenty-five years of alienation. Each had been too proud to ask the other for forgiveness. Their sons had suffered. Bitterness had blighted their lives. But now, with the husband in the hospital, she wanted to be remarried. Although this story had a happy ending they squandered twenty-five years.

Tough words

How can those who experience forgiveness through the blood of Christ refuse forgiveness to their fellow creatures? We all know the parable about the servant who was forgiven a million but refused to forgive an insignificant debt owed by another servant. Such conduct in professing Christians creates a jarring dissonance when laid alongside the cry from the cross. ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’.

Every time we pray in harmony with Jesus’ model prayer we ask the Father to ‘Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’. Jesus continued, ‘For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’ (Matthew 6:12,14,15). Tough words.

In Ephesians 4 Paul lists withholding forgiveness alongside sins as abhorrent as hatred. Clearly, an unforgiving lifestyle calls into question our identity as children of God. After all, peach trees do not produce lemons, neither does the Great Forgiver father bitter children. We know we should forgive, but how do we go about it?

Who makes the first move?

The subject raises a practical question, namely, who should initiate forgiveness? Should it be the one who sins, the one who is sinned against, or a third party who sees that two people need reconciliation?

Many put off reconciliation while they wait for the more guilty party to take the first step. The person most responsible for the grievance, however, may not even recognise that an offence has been committed, or may not be willing to take the initiative. Then too, it is often impossible to apportion blame accurately, since any disagreement has two sides.

Ideally, the one who sins should be the one who goes and asks for forgiveness. Christ taught that if a person on the way to worship remembers that another has a grievance against him (due to something he has said or done) he should stop what he is doing and apologise, with an eye to reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24).

But Jesus also said to the one sinned against, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you’ (Matthew 18:15-17). The gospel requires the victim of another’s sin to graciously and privately confront the person responsible.

Peacemakers

If both the offender and the one offended stall the process, a third party may need to step in. However difficult the process might be, we know that Christ commissions us all to become peacemakers. This will require great discernment as well as courage and tact, lest we pour fuel on a smouldering relational fire or ignite tensions where none existed.

When bitterness begins to shred the fabric of human relationships, we mustn’t wait until friendship lies in tatters before we pursue reconciliation. Whether we are the cause of the tear, the victim or a third party, we cannot afford to look the other way. The Christian lifestyle calls us — at different times — to forgive, to seek forgiveness, and to reconcile grieved parties.

Michael Carlucci was convicted of manslaughter for shooting the son of Pastor Walter Everett. The bereaved father explained why he forgave Michael. ‘People won’t be able to understand why Jesus came and what Jesus is all about unless we forgive’.

Everett’s explanation was no mere rhetoric. The killer became a follower of Christ while in jail. Upon release, he wanted to be married. Unbelievable as it sounds, Walter Everett performed the ceremony. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the redemptive process!