Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
First published in Discover Southside in 2009, this article is also listed in “The Attic” of this Blog. Our kids are grown and mostly gone now, but I still remember those days. Maybe reading about my failures will encourage you to watch out for these mistakes.
Caught Red Handed
Just the other day my teenager and I had words about emptying the dishwasher. He never wants to empty it, so when he complained that the dishes weren’t clean, I didn’t pay attention to him. I gave him a choice of emptying the dishwasher or going to his room. He chose the latter. Only when his sister opened the door of the dishwasher and noticed that the soap was still in the dispenser did I realize that, this time, his reasoning was not an excuse to get out of work. We had failed to start the dishwasher. I hit the start button on the dishwasher and called my son to come out of his room so I could apologize. Yes, well, moms do make mistakes sometimes. A lot of times. My kids think I never apologize often enough or profusely enough.
Once during their preschool-age days, I disciplined the wrong child because another sibling lied to me. I believed the sibling, because the one I thought was guilty was more prone to acts of unkindness and lying. This time, he was telling the truth, but I didn’t believe him. A few years later when the guilty party came forth to confess, I ended up apologizing to the innocent party. I have to admit that there was a part of me that didn’t feel too badly about it. Sure, I was sorry he had gotten the unfair punishment, and I would undo my rash judgment if I could. Yet I also knew that, even though he had been disciplined unfairly that time, there had been plenty of other times when he got off scott free. I figured this mistake had balanced things out! Yet I was still wrong. I asked and received forgiveness.
Yet a year or two later, he confronted me again about my error those years before. It was one of those knock-down-drag-out-bring-everything-out-of-the-closet conversations. I told him I’d apologized for having disciplined him unfairly, but he declared I really hadn’t. So I apologized again, just to be sure. Again, I told him I was sorry for not believing him and disciplining him unfairly, and I asked him if he could forgive me. He said yes. Would you believe that a few years later, I was again accused of never having apologized?! This time, I brought a witness with me to verify that I was indeed confessing an error in judgment and punishment. Third time’s a charm, they say.
It’s not easy to say “I’m sorry.”
Nor is it pleasant living with the burden of a guilty conscience.
Contrary to the popular slogan of the 70’s, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” love requires action when one has been wrong. I should think a better slogan would be, “Love is willing to say ‘I’m sorry’.”
It is true that when we love someone, we should be willing to forgive no matter what, even if we are not asked to extend forgiveness. Yet it also true that when we love someone, we will be willing to admit our error when we have been in the wrong.
I have learned that making excuses is not asking forgiveness. I think about that when I remember what happened the day my mother buried her last sibling quite a few years back. It was a cold, wintry day, and she stayed inside the church while most everyone else went out to the graveyard for the committal service. Another older gentleman chose to stay inside rather than brave the cold as well. He was in his nineties. I saw them conversing together, and assumed they were reconnecting after not seeing each other for some time.
I never dreamed that their conversation was actually an apology and an extension of forgiveness.
The details of what had happened many years before are not important now. The fact that he felt he had wronged her is important, not so much because of the wrong, but because he made it right. That day, he chose to ask forgiveness for his response to her in a certain situation over half a century before.
Their relationship had not been one of tension in years past; he, his wife, and children had a good relationship with our family. None of us would ever have guessed that there had been discord between them years before. It seemed that time had been good, and a lot of water had gone under the bridge. I am certain he had forgotten about the offense, or he would have attempted to make it right earlier. Yet as he entered his nineties, he looked back on his life and experienced regret over this incident. He wanted to make it right.
My mother came home that day and told me about that conversation.She did not express horror that it took him so long to make an apology. Mama never said it should have happened a long time ago. She didn’t ask what took him so long to come forward. Yet the fact that she, too, recognized the hurt that had been inflicted on her years before told me that the wrong had been real and not imagined.
I think about that at times when it’s hard for me to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” I am grateful for the example of this older gentleman who chose, even late in life, to mend a wrong. He didn’t use the excuse that it had happened too long ago and that he should just let bygones be bygones.
“I prayed,” he told my mother, “that I would have an opportunity to talk to you about this and make it right.”
He trusted God to provide an opportunity for him to express his regret. The opportunity came that day, sitting on the front pew of the church while nearly everyone else was outside. He didn’t care what she’d think of him; he only wanted to live his last years with a conscience that was clear.
My mother shared tearfully how the look of relief on his face let her know that he knew he had been forgiven. He wouldn’t have had to apologize to experience her forgiveness, for she had given it long ago. Yet the lesson I learned from that encounter will stay with me as long as I live.
How to Admit We are Wrong
I have learned that a clear conscience is worth the effort it takes to admit a wrong. In our home, we’ve tried—and sometimes failed—to model a pattern for making restitution. When our kids were younger, we expected them to apologize when they had harmed a sibling by saying “I am sorry for ______,” specifically stating the infraction. As they got older, we tried to help them add another important part: “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
I have learned that there are several ways to absolve myself of responsibility, and none of them really asks forgiveness. It’s easy to make a half-apology or sound like we’re apologizing when we’re actually refusing to accept responsibility.
When I say, “I’m sorry I hurt you, BUT . . . ,” I am really saying “I know I hurt you, but I have a good reason to have done it.”
- BUT I didn’t mean it.
- BUT you’re too sensitive.
- BUT I was tired.
- BUT you don’t know what it is like to be me.
- BUT I was so frustrated.
- BUT if you would only . . .
When I apologize with a “but”, I am excusing the pain I caused you. Therefore it really isn’t my fault.
I also have learned, especially if I am afraid I will say the wrong thing, to plan my words so that when the opportunity comes, I am able to say what needs to be said. There’s an old story about the prodigal son, told by Jesus Himself, which models this. After the younger son had wasted his inheritance, he came to his senses and realized how ridiculous he had acted. He also recognized that he had grieved his father. So, standing there among the corn husks as he was feeding slop to the pigs, he made a decision to go back home.
That Prodigal Son
Yet he knew he didn’t deserve going back as a son; after all, he’d claimed his inheritance and left home! How long it took him to get to that point is a question for which we have no answer. But we do know that he made a decision to go home and ask for his father’s forgiveness.
“I’m going back home. I’m going to say to my father, ‘I have sinned and am not even worthy to be called your son. Please allow me to just be one of your hired servants.’” [My paraphrase]
The son started the long journey home; when he was within sight of his father’s land, his father ran to meet him. The prodigal son didn’t make excuses or put the blame on his dad: “If you had been a better father, if you hadn’t made me work so hard, if you hadn’t . . . ”
No. He simply spoke the truth and said what he had planned to say. “I have sinned and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.”
Asking and Extending Forgiveness
I have learned that asking forgiveness acknowledges the pain and recognizes that a wrong has been done. Extending forgiveness frees me more than it does the other party. If my mother had harbored a grudge, it would have affected not only her attitude toward this gentleman, but her offspring, as well. We, her children, would probably have held that same attitude toward this man, which would have affected his children as well as our entire church.
I have learned that if it’s small enough to bother me, then it’s big enough to be dealt with. I figure there’s a reason we were given a conscience.
I’ve lost a lot of battles over the years when I delayed or refused to say “I’m sorry.” The next time there’s a dishwasher to empty, I intend to listen better so I won’t need to apologize later. I might lose some battles, but I intend to win the war.