Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm Sorry....

When I was a young dad, I over-reacted or some such thing—I don’t exactly remember—to something my toddler son had done. So I knelt to look him in the eye, gave him a hug and a kiss, and I told him I was wrong and I was sorry. Another adult who witnessed this little father-son moment, told me emphatically, “Ah, don’t ever apologize to your children. When they’re twenty-four, they’ll be able to sort it all out for themselves.”

The Bible has a lot to say about forgiving others, and rightly so. We all love to be forgiven; indeed, we fully expect others--almost as a right--to overlook our indiscretions. But there seems to be a great silence on the subject of asking others to forgive us for something we’ve done to them. We don’t like to do that, nor do we want to talk about it. Let’s face it; we don’t like to admit when we are wrong.

God calls us to repentance. As Christians, we usually don’t mind talking about confessing our sins to God; after all, that’s expected; we discuss it with great humility and importance; yet the concept of repentance somehow gets lost between the sky above or the dark corner of our prayer closet and the person two feet away. Why? I propose that, quite ironically, repenting to God often serves to exalt us, whereas repenting to another person—especially one we have to live with each day—is, well, humiliating. Besides, confessing to God is really abstract compared to that neighbor of ours; we can only imagine what God’s expression might be and we are fairly certain He will be accepting of us, not necessarily so the person we have wronged. God would never take advantage of our moment of weakness, but another person might.

The famous thirteenth century theologian, Thomas Aquinas, made a careful distinction between attrition and contrition. The former says “I’m sorry” such as you might mean when caught filching a cookie from the cookie jar; you are only sorry you got caught or for being stupid enough to get caught; and given another opportunity you would steal a cookie, again, but with better stealth. We shouldn’t limit this to trivial situations such as going off our diet. Sadly, people use the same approach for murder or adultery or saying something hurtful either at or about another person. Attrition is self-serving humiliation.

Attrition is the type of apology we use out of expediency. King Saul when confronted by the prophet Samuel for disobeying God said he was sorry only to try to smooth things over with everyone. We can use attrition as a defense mechanism during arguments; it can be a means of garnering sympathy from our opponent in order to move him to capitulate or at least cool his aggression; or, dripping with qualifiers, we can employ attrition to spread the guilt or shift it wholesale—“I’m sorry, but….”

Contrition knows that what we have done is an effrontery to God, so that when we repent we truly mean not to do it again and, as much as in our power, to make amends for what we have done. A contrite heart wants to be taught to change, accepts guilt unqualifiedly, and seeks restoration of the broken relationship for God’s sake and the other person’s benefit. When Nathan confronted King David with David’s horrible sin, David repented with a contrite heart and accepted the loss of his son as a consequence of what he had done. David did not attempt to smooth things over, but understood the depth of his sin against God.

We should understand that contrition is a means by which God makes us more like Him so that we can fully share in the Divine nature. Through contrition, we in essence ask God to make our heart pure and our spirit upright. Contrition serves as one means of seeking God’s grace.

Any time we wrong someone, which always amounts to putting ourselves ahead of the other person in some way, we wrong God. In every case we should tell both the person we wronged and God, “I’m sorry” with a contrite heart, and seek forgiveness—we repent. We shouldn't tarry in this because the opportunity could be lost forever.

If we claim to be Christ followers, we are living sacrifices; our life is an altar before God. We delude ourselves if we believe our life to be a pure offering to God when we have left wrongs we have done to another unresolved. Jesus said, “So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.”[NET]


Tricia Morris said...

Thank you for these insights, Bruce. I especially liked your discussion of the difference between attrition and contrition. I don't think I've ever really thought about it this way. I'll be searching my heart. . .