This Lent, say sorry – and mean it

This Lent, say sorry – and mean it
Dr Greg Popcak

Lent is a time of reparation – a season of sorrow for sins committed and expressions of a sincere desire to reform our lives. But what does it mean to be sorry? What are the components of real remorse?

Whether we are expressing sorrow to God, a spouse, family member or friend, it can be hard to say, “I’m sorry”. It can be even harder to say it well. Sometimes, when people say that they are sorry to us, we can feel like there is something missing. Often, it’s because there is. But what?

As we express our sorrow to God this Lent for the ways that our lives do not reflect his plan for us, it can be important to make sure our “I’m sorrys” have all the components of sincere remorse. Researchers note that good apologies involve three ingredients: empathy, restitution and objective criteria.

When people offer a sincere apology rooted not in obligation but genuine remorse, they tend to express a real emotional understanding of how their actions hurt us. “I am so sorry for doing that. I never meant to treat you that way. I know how badly you were hurt. Please forgive me.”

The truly remorseful person doesn’t make excuses or tell the person they hurt that they were “just kidding,” or that the wounded party needs to get a thicker skin or a better sense of humour. They understand the impact of their actions and they let you know that they feel your pain.

When we express our sorrow to God this Lent, are we going through the motions of repentance, or are we allowing ourselves to express genuine sorrow for the pain God feels when we reject his attempts to love us and make us whole?

When people offer a sincere apology, they don’t just “say the magic words”. They offer a plan for making things right again. Or, if they don’t know what to do to make it right, they ask you what you need them to do to heal the hurt their actions caused. They say things like, “The next time I feel that angry about something, I’m going to do this instead of that,” or, “I really want to make this right. What can I do to earn your trust again?”

Restitution isn’t about asking people to jump through hoops for the sake of watching them dance. It is about committing to the process of reconciliation – healing the wounds our actions caused.

When we confess our sins this Lent, have we put some time into how we would handle similar problem situations differently in the future? Hearing the words “I absolve you” is just the beginning. How will we let the grace of that absolution compel us to heal the wounds our actions have caused those we love, and how can we make sure to avoid those problem behaviours the next time we are tempted to go down a similar path?

Truly sorrowful people don’t hide out behind the belief that “the real problem” is that others are expecting too much of them. If we are truly sorry, we recognise that the person we hurt had an objective right to expect more from us.

How often do others apologize to us in ways that make us feel strangely ashamed for daring to expect them to be faithful, trustworthy or respectful? How often do the apologies others offer sound like, “I’m sorry, but don’t you think you’re being a little controlling/sensitive/judgmental/ needy/demanding/unfair?”

The person offering a sincere apology acknowledges that anyone in a similar situation would be reasonable to expect what you are asking of them. “You’re absolutely right to expect more of me. I’m really sorry I let you down.”

In our relationship with God, how often do we think that the real problem is that he is just asking for entirely too much. Sure, we’re sorry for what we did, but the real problem is that he expects us to be saints. Saints, I tell you! Can you believe it?!? How ridiculous is that?!?

As we conclude Lent, will we continue to pay lip service to the idea that God wants great things for us, or will we embrace the fact that every day he is calling us into deeper union with him and greater perfection in his grace?

Whether we are expressing remorse to God or others, being sorry isn’t, ultimately, about making ourselves seem pitiful enough or appearing pathetic enough to make the other person feel bad and let us off the hook.

Apologizing is about picking up our cross and embracing the hard work that comes with changing our behaviour – not so that we can jump through some spiritual hoop but so that we can participate more effectively in the healing process that allows us to achieve our ultimate destiny: loving union with God.

Dr Greg Popcak is an author and the director of