Are You Really?
"I'm sorry." I heard my kids say that a million times. "Are you really?" They heard me say that a million times. Those words are a transaction that takes place between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. Sometimes they even take place between a church member and church authority.
The problem with "I'm sorry," is that the words are both difficult and easy to say. They are difficult to those of us who, however wrong we know ourselves to be, hate to admit it. They are easy to those of us who find saying them is preferrable to trouble we're in or about to be in or we who say them in the hopes of moving on from the uncomfortable relational place in which we find ourselves.
We say or hear, "But are you really?" because we question in the case of them, or they question in the case of us, the sincerity of the apology. Is the apology made with genuine sorrow? With sufficient remorse? Is the apology made just to avoid or get out of trouble and/or to move along from the awkward spot in the relationship? And what is the connection between "sorry" and "not doing it again"? Is "not doing it again" a necessary component of a sincere apology? What if the offender (whether ourselves or someone else) is a repeat offender? Does that render the apology null and void? What parent (or other offended person) has not said, "If you're really sorry, you won't do it again."
The problem with repeat offenders who say, "I'm sorry," and the repeatedly offended who say, "Are you really?" is that this exchange can eventually make matters worse. The offended person begins to take the apology with a grain of salt. At some point the sinned against person would rather not hear the words, and says, "How many times have you said you're sorry, and here we are again." The offender can come to the place that he or she thinks, "What's the use? He/she doesn't think I'm sincere, and I'm not sure I am either." So, instead of apologizing the offender says nothing. And things spiral downward with no attempt at apology, no attempt at forgiveness, and no approximation of reconciliation.
For all of us this "being sorry" has something to do with ourselves as sinners and our relationship with God. Before God we are all habitual offenders both because of sin in general (we keep sinning) and because of besetting sins in particular (the sins we tend to repeat). So how does God respond to our, "I'm sorry"? Does he respond with, "Are you really? I'm doubting you are"? Do we reach the point that it's useless to ask for forgiveness and that God is tired of hearing us ask?
I got to thinking about this last Sunday when I was assisting in Morning Prayer and led the Confession and pronounced the Absolution.
Everytime we say Morning Prayer we pray:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
and we have done those thingswhich we ought not to have done;
and there is no health in us.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
Every day we use the same words. We make the same confession of our sins, and we ask the same two things - forgiveness and grace to live a better life.
Request for Forgiveness
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent;
according to thy promises declared unto mankind
in Christ Jesu our Lord.
Request for Grace And grant, O most merciful Father,
for his sake,that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
to the glory of thy holy name.
The minister then pronounces the absolution:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who desireth not the death of a sinner,
but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live;
and hath given power, and commandment, to his ministers
to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent,
the absolution and remission of their sins:
he pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel.
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit
that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy;
so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Every day after the Confession of Sin, God promises forgiveness to those who are penitent and believe the gospel and entreats all to pray for repentance and the help of the Holy Spirit to the ends that the present worship may be pleasing to God and that the rest of our lives may be pure and holy.
What is surprising about this is that we do it every day. We confess and ask for forgiveness. God, in the words of the minister, grants us forgiveness. We ask that we may "hereafter lead a godly, righteous and sober life," and the minster exhorts us to ask God to "grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit" so that "the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy." Then we come back and do the the same thing the next morning. Every day we confess, get forgiveness, and start out anew. Every day we mess up, so that the next day the whole thing is repeated.
This part of Morning Prayer does not allow us to change the list of sins or to redefine them. God alone says what sin is. Nor is it intended to make us indifferent to or lax about sin. God's isn't. But this daily dynamic of confession and absolution does encourage us to believe that the fact that we sinned yesterday does not mean we can't ask forgiveness today, that the fact that we asked for grace to lead a whole new and different life yesterday but failed does not mean we cannot ask the same today. You fall down, you admit it, you ask for pardon. By God's grace you get forgiveness and then get up and start a new life again - every day. God does not say, "You said the same thing yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. I have been gracious. But now I am doubting you are sincere about being sorry and wanting forgiveness and wanting my help to live a better life. I am getting tired of this. Don't come back until you can show you mean it." God rather invites us to keep repeating the process every day. Guilt and shame and the doubts of others may keep us from going back and saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." But the Father is still looking for us and is ready to bring out the robe and ring and shoes and kill the fatted calf.
God is not the pathetic "He" who "though it makes him sad to see the way we live, he'll always say, 'I forgive.'" No. God is not morally weak. He is morally rigorous, but gracious.
God will send people to hell. The only way he cannot send us all there is that on the first Good Friday he sent his Son there for us on the cross. That's the most scadalous thing about God's grace. He does not spare his own Son but delivers him up for us all.
But there is more about grace that is scandalous. "God forgives and keeps forgiving? God lets us start over and keep starting over? Nah, that just isn't right. I wouldn't do that." So, while Jesus is eating and drinking with publicans and sinners, and going to Zacchaeus' house, we join his critics, the scribes and Pharisees. While the Father is throwing a party for the prodigal, we find ourselves outside with the sullen older brother though the Father wants us to join the party.
The comedian Dennis Swanberg tells the (presumably) fictitious story of sitting as a little boy in church with his parents. The preacher asked, "What are we going to do about sin?" And again, "What are we going to do about sin?" And for effect once again, "What are we going to do about sin?" The boy felt somebody had to answer, so he stood up and said, "Preacher, we don't know!"
We don't. But God does. If Jesus told Peter to forgive his oft sinning brother 490 times, as oft as he repents, shall not the God of all grace forgive us?