Responding to “I’m Sorry”

How do you respond when someone says “I’m sorry” to you? The response will certainly differ based on your relationship with that person and the context of the conversation. But recently I’ve been thinking that our response to this phrase both shows a lot about us and offers a great opportunity.

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As I see it, there are two reasons people say “I’m sorry.” A friend might say, “I’m sorry to hear that your cat died.” The friend is not assuming any guilt for your cat’s death; they are simply recognizing a sad or disappointing event in your life (“I’m sorry you didn’t get that job offer”) and want to sympathize with you in your sadness. It seems that a reasonable response to this would begin with “Thank you” and go on from there.

The more interesting reason you might hear “I’m sorry” is when someone feels bad about something they’ve done to you. Now this is delicate. The easy responses here would include “That’s OK” or “Don’t worry about it.” This is the way most people respond, but I think it misses an opportunity.

When someone apologizes to you in this way, they are admitting guilt and asking for restoration. They are asking for forgiveness! Whether or not this other person is a Christian, this is a great opportunity to acknowledge that (a) there is a need for forgiveness in this situation; and (b) forgiveness is not only needed but granted. Restoration is complete! So, I propose this as a fitting response: “I forgive you.”

“Not so fast,” you say. The word “forgiveness” itself is certainly unfashionable and sounds a bit antiquated, right? My response is simply: who cares? We cannot navigate around the topic of forgiveness if we want to relate to God through Jesus Christ properly, and we learn from the Bible (Col 3:12–14) that the way we offer and receive forgiveness from others is a window into how we understand our forgiveness from God. If we want to draw those around us into spiritual realities, then a discussion of forgiveness is unavoidable. So, why not take the opportunities presented to you?

There are certainly ham-handed, forced ways to do this, and as sinners we won’t enter into these conversation flawlessly. But the conversations may be there, so pray and seek them out! Let’s step out in faith in this small way and ask God to work through our meager efforts.

How about you? How do you respond when someone says “I’m sorry” to you? If you’ve turned the conversation toward forgiveness, how has that gone?


Photo by Leonard John Matthews, Creative Commons License

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