“I’m sorry.” “He offered an apology.” “She made a public plea for forgiveness.” It is hard to imagine a day’s news cycle without hearing something like this. Everybody is sorry about something or wants someone to be sorry about something. It permeates everything we do. It is a smog of sorriness. Our kids bring it home from school. It seeps in through the TV and the internet. We start to think sorry is our normal condition and we wonder what may be wrong with us when we find we really aren’t sorry. We are living in a sorry state. A sorry state is a “pressed down” state. It sits on us, this feeling of being sorry. It lingers over us until we start saying it for no reason at all. A little girl who we keep in our daycare walks around all day saying, “I’m sorry.” She just says it out of the blue. I ask, “What are you sorry for?” She never answers, she just starts telling me about whatever she is doing. It makes you wonder though doesn’t it? It makes us feel like we must be doing something wrong if this child feels compelled to say “sorry” ten times a day. But it is a pretty good reflection of what goes on in our culture every day all day. Many of our relationships are suffering because of this sorry state. We are like the little girl. We walk around with the feeling we ought to say we are sorry, but we’re not sure why.
Let me tell you a few things about being sorry. First of all, and so obvious you may not notice it at first, feeling sorry is not natural. If you and I are cosmic accidents who are only part of the animal world and making a way through it by being bigger, faster, stronger, then sorry is stupid. You ever see a lion who was sorry it stole the last bite of antelope right out of the mouth of the slower lion? No. Feeling sorry is unnatural, meaning it is something outside of us we can’t explain based upon what we see. Second is that sorry is just the tip of the iceberg called forgiveness. The real ruinous part of our sorry state; the thing that kills marriages and all our significant relationships, is the idea that “feeling sorry” is how forgiveness is accomplished, and if we don’t “feel sorry” we are not truly able to experience forgiveness, and if someone asks us for forgiveness who doesn’t feel bad enough (whatever that means – it varies from person to person) can’t or shouldn’t be forgiven. Since it is almost impossible to make ourselves feel bad enough, or to know exactly how bad someone ought to feel in order for us to get on with the business of living, we end up with a lot of loose ends in our relationships; a lot of unease about ourselves and our spouses.
I asked a couple this week what they thought forgiveness was. They told me it was about owning our mistakes and then agreeing to go on together. I thought that was a good start. Then I asked this: So you uncover the fault and agree to go on together. What happens if a week, or a month or a year from now you bring it back up again and demand more answers or more concessions or whatever? What if every year on the anniversary of the offense the offended person brings it up again? Is that forgiveness? Have you really forgiven? They both laughed at that and agreed it was not forgiveness. I agree. But what is forgiveness then? Does it mean forgetting an offense ever happened? Try that. Many of us have tried to do that. It isn’t very practical is it? And it doesn’t feel healthy. It feels like I’m trying to fool myself into believing something bad never happened, and that can’t be right. I also discovered that when I most need to forget the offense I am in the worst position to do it. When do you need it most? When things are forcing you to remember the offense, right? Triggers. People, places, words, things. Forgetting just can’t be the right answer.
Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling and not forgetting. Both the person needing forgiveness and the person extending it must decide. It is not a mutual decision, but a personal one. A decision? Yes. A decision about cost. Who is going to bear the cost of the offense. In real forgiveness the person who is hurt must decide to bear the cost of the hurt alone and not try to make the other person pay for it. And there are plenty of toll booths set up along the way where we can make others pay; plenty of decision points.
Years ago my wife collected ceramic figurines called Precious Moments. She put them all in a cabinet in a little walkway just off the kitchen. Some of them were limited editions and many were no longer made. One day my daughter hit the cabinet as she walked by it. It came off the wall and fell onto a tile floor. The sound of breaking glass went on and on. Out of perhaps 50 pieces only one or two survived the fall. It was a total loss. I remember the look on Nicole’s face and Tina’s face. “I’m sorry Momma! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Momma!” she said. It was pitiful really. What could she do? What could Tina do? The mistake was made. The pieces were never coming back together again and never could. There was no replacement cost because there were no replacements to be had. It was an accident, you say. Surely you have to be forgiving when accidents happen. Right. And do we usually set out to hurt our spouses? Our friends? Our children? No. Forgiveness isn’t easier because it was an accident. It is the same thing. It is a decision to bear the cost rather than break the relationship. It is a decision to take the loss rather than to make the other party pay for it. If every time Tina saw a Precious Moments figure from then on she reminded Nicole of how she destroyed her collection, she makes Nicole bear the cost. If someone asked Tina where her cabinet full of figures was she used the opportunity to run Nicole down and call her clumsy, then she decides to make Nicole take the loss.
Someone is going to bear the cost of an offense. It doesn’t matter if it was an accident or on purpose. And here is another angle that we often miss: if you are asking for real forgiveness you are agreeing to let the other person bear the burden for your offense. You are not asking them to let you pay it off in an installment plan, you are leaving the decision with them and you can’t do anything more about it. If you keep trying to pay for it, you really aren’t asking for forgiveness, you are asking them to tell you when the account is paid off; and most people will never be able to tell you when that happens. Do you see how different this view of forgiveness is from what we’re being sold in our sorry state? How upside down it is? Our culture is obsesses with extracting the cost of forgiveness from the person who committed the offense. True forgiveness is squarely on the shoulders of the offended party and their decision to bear the entire cost. How did this get flipped on us? Take God out of our collective consciousness and we have a real problem. We do feel sorry. We do feel guilty. We are not like the other animals. But we have no explanation for it. No God means no right or wrong. It means there are no burdens to bear and no apologies to make. If you are bigger, faster, stronger you win. And why worry about accidents when everything is an accident including your own existence? Leave God out and you get a sorry state with no remedy, no forgiveness. The problem is that letting God in means having to face up to offending him; to having to ask him for forgiveness. What about that? What if God doesn’t want to bear the cost? How are we going to pay off that debt? What happens when we knock all his Precious Moments to pieces? If God decides we owe him for the things we’ve broken and wants to make us pay for them, how long will it take to pay it off? When we’ve broken things of infinite worth we are in for an eternal work day to make it right. Can you see now what the gospel is? Can you see how it is God accepting the cost of calling us his daughters and sons? When things are broken someone must bear the cost. God decided to bear it. The cross is the payment for God to stay in relationship with us and never abandon us. We must accept it or try to come up with the payment on our own. It is hard to accept true forgiveness. Very hard. I’ve had to watch my wife’s face when I put hurt into her life. I had to see the struggle to decide not to make me pay while I stood by helplessly, knowing I did that to her. I did that to the person I love. It is terrible and wonderful to see. What is the resource she has to do this? How can she bear it? She believes the cross is God’s forgiveness for her and for me. She sees that God bore the cost of her failures so she could be his daughter. That gives perspective. It shrinks the size of my offenses against her. But she also sees something else, something that releases her heart and clears her mind to remember my offenses but to live without the heavy burden. She sees that when I hurt her it was an offense against her,yes, but it was also an offense against God, her Father. He takes it personally. It is his to take. All things are his. All abuse is abuse to his property. All the offenses against people are offenses to his family. And he decides to forgive. He decides to bear the cost. Now my wife sees that she isn’t bearing the cost alone, that Jesus is under the full strain of her husband’s offense. This is how our marriage works. This is how we escape the sorry state.