The Bad “I’m Sorry” ( and 3 Myths About Forgiveness)

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The bad “I’m sorry.” We’ve all gotten it. We’ve all given it.

The bad “I’m sorry” is a social occasion where someone knows an expectation exists for them to express remorse or sympathy for an unfortunate event they caused, so they comply; in reality, however, it’s apparent that the offending party doesn’t regret the action at all.

The first realization I had that such a thing existed came when watching Seinfeld as a kid. James Spader guest-starred as a recovering alcoholic who was going through step 9 of the AA program, i.e. making amends. Jerry Seinfeld’s ever-annoyed sidekick, George Costanza, wanted an apology for an incident from years earlier – George had asked to borrow a sweater during a party at Spader’s drafty apartment. Instead, Spader, in front of everyone at the party, said that George’s huge head would stretch out the neckhole of his sweater and then made the counter offer of a cheap, very unflattering MetLife windbreaker.

Years later, and now with the weight of Step 9 behind him, George confronted Spader, demanding an apology. Spader calmly replied“I’m so sorry that I didn’t want your rather bulbous head struggling to find its way through the normal-sized neck hole of my finely knit sweater,” much to the delight of his giggling friends. Now George needed an apology for the bad apology.

You know exactly how this feels. I do too.

As a pastor, I do a decent amount of counseling and mediation between parties in disagreement. I’ve seen countless bad “I’m sorrys.” Generally, they come out sounding something like, “I’m sorry you think/feel that….” OR “I’m sorry if you….” In other words, the apology ends up being like a polite summary of the offended party’s incompetence.

I’ll grant that sometimes this sort of thinking is legitimate. Sometimes the offended party is completely off base. If that’s the case though, I’d avoid the “I’m sorry” verbiage, as insincere apologies only complicate matters.

On many occasions, however, we stink at “I’m sorrys” simply because we’re proud and angry and we don’t believe the other party has properly acknowledged their fault in the matter.

Furthermore, we live in a time where people aren’t expected to say what they’re thinking. We’re expected to say what’s expected, what’s socially appropriate. This creates an even deeper cynicism about apologies and forgiveness.

All of this leads me to believe that we have some fairly large societal misperceptions about the language of reconciliation. So…I wanted to spend a moment today trying to debunk, from the Bible’s perspective, some common myths about forgiveness.

(NOTE: God’s forgiveness for our sins is obviously a major scriptural theme and always worth thoughtful consideration. But for our purposes today, I’m going to primarily address the benefits of human-to-human forgiveness, motivated by God.)

MYTH 1) Forgiveness primarily benefits the offending party.

Years ago, I remember speaking with a  woman who, from my perspective, had been legitimately wronged by her ex-husband (whom I never met). We talked a lot about God’s expectation for us to forgive others as well as our request in the Lord’s Prayer that God would grant us forgiveness in the same measure that we forgive others. At one point, she very matter-of-factly said, “I won’t forgive him. I never will be able to forgive him for what he did.”

I was trying very hard to be sympathetic to what she’d been through. But there was an obvious logical disconnect here and it was difficult for me to bite my tongue.

So far as I could tell, the ex-husband had moved on with his life and never thought about this woman anymore. He seemingly wasn’t sorry and didn’t care about the misery he had (and was continuing to) put her through. He was relieved to be done with this relationship. But this woman kept foolishly thinking that by not forgiving him, by not letting his transgressions go, she was causing him some sort of hurt. But the only one who was still experiencing pain from this relationship was her.

There is good reason why emotional damage from previous relationships has taken on the title today of “baggage.” This is stuff we have to carry around. Much like hauling your luggage through a large, congested airport, hauling your emotional and relational baggage around for years is exhausting. This is certainly part of the reason why God has given Christians this mechanism called forgiveness – i.e. when we forgive, we are liberated from the weight of sin against us.

The most common Greek word to describe the concept of forgiveness is aphiemi, which is literally the idea of sending something away or letting something go. If you let something go, you no longer have to carry it around. You are freed.

So, yes, forgiveness does benefit the offending party. It does tend to lead to relational reconciliation, certainly more than if there is no forgiveness. But equally important, forgiveness also benefits the health of the one doing the forgiving.

Ephesians 4:31-32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

MYTH 2) Forgiving means forgetting.

When God forgives us, the Bible tells us that he will forgive (our) wickedness and will remember (our) sins no more.” (Heb. 8:12) That said, this point shouldn’t be overstated to such an extent that it violates God’s omniscience. In other words, we are judicially justified by God, and heaven is ours as if we had not sinned, but an awareness of our sins hasn’t escaped God’s knowledge. Nor does that happen to us. 

Short of a lobotomy, it’d be foolish to think someone, at least in this lifetime, could have some offenses completely wiped from their memory banks – e.g. abuse, rape, murder of loved ones, etc.

Forgiveness does not then mean that we can (or necessarily even should) never think about tragedies that have come our way.

Dwelling for lengthy periods of time wouldn’t be healthy or productive. And the biblical ideal for directing our thoughts is clearly that we “forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Nonetheless, someone who is struggling to forgive should not see “forgetting” as a necessary but impossible hurdle to get over before forgiveness can take place. Furthermore, someone who has not forgotten sins committed against them shouldn’t feel as though their forgiveness is insufficient because they still experience some pain over that past wrongdoing.

Remember, the concept behind aphiemi is more “letting it go” than it is non-remembering. It’s not a thought repression, but a conscious choice to not hold something against someone any longer.

MYTH 3) You need someone to say “I’m sorry” in order to forgive.

Perhaps the most shocking of all, you don’t actually need anyone to say anything to you in order to forgive them. You don’t need groveling. You don’t need tears. You don’t need a good “I’m sorry” or really an “I’m sorry” at all.

How do I know this? Just look at the how, when, and why of God’s forgiveness to you.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) Through Christ’s death (how), before we ever thought about repenting (when), because he loved us so much (why), God forgave our sins. While we were still sinners! Not only hadn’t we earned forgiveness, we weren’t even asking for it! We weren’t even considering ourselves needing of it! That’s grace. Not just showing love to people who don’t fully deserve it (as amazing as that is), but showing love to people whose thoughts and actions suggest they don’t want or need it. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Through Jesus, God showed grace – he forgave you and me all our transgressions, before we gave him a good “I’m sorry.” His Spirit now lives inside you, which means that you have the capacity to forgive that way too.

Perfect morality is a nice ideal, but unrealistic for someone here on earth. Better forgiveness, however, is within our reach.

Don’t buy the world’s foolish myths about forgiveness. Trust the teaching of the Savior who invented it.

(Article originally published at

10 thoughts on “The Bad “I’m Sorry” ( and 3 Myths About Forgiveness)

      • Jen Born says:

        Yes, I’m not in FB anymore 😦 one of the great things about being a PW – judgement 😉 I am doing well, starting a new job in November, very excited! …I’m sure we will get a call soon 😉 man, I sound sassy. I truly am sorry about that James! Miss chatting too! Hope you guys are doing well too! :))

  1. Brett Peterson says:

    I enjoy your perspective, and normally don’t have anything to say except “Well done.”

    But this time I’d like to add some thoughts for a couple reasons. First of all forgiveness is a serious topic. Second, I think it’s important not only to be understood, but also not to be misunderstood. I have no problem with the concept of what you are trying to say. I just think it can be clearer.

    The “Myth” part of your article is written for the offended and not for the offender.
    I agree with you that the offended must let go and move on. Granted this can be extremely difficult. But this has nothing to do with forgiveness, and everything to do with God’s grace. The bible says that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and I don’t think you’d disagree. The simple answer, not necessarily an easy task is to let God heal us through the Means of Grace.

    I disagree with your Myth #1.
    Forgiveness is most definitely for the sinner.
    Certainly a person who forgives can feel real joy by forgiving someone and restoring a relationship, but it’s the sinner who desperately needs the forgiveness whether or not they are aware of it. If a person offended thinks they are able to move past the offense because they were strong enough to forgive, they may think it’s up to them. In reality, they are just as sinful and the only way they can know of forgiveness is because God has first forgiven them. They may lose the understanding of how beautiful God’s grace is, if they view forgiveness from a law perspective instead of a gospel perspective.

    I also disagree with your Myth #3.
    Without repentance there can be no forgiveness.
    What Christ has accomplished on the cross, an innocent death for the payment of the sin of the world, is done. It is sufficient. Does that mean everyone will go to heaven? Not according to the bible. God wants sinners to repent so they may be saved.

    The offended person may be able let go of the offense someone did to them, and be willing and ready to forgive the offender when they are repentant. This happened in my home when my daughter spoke improperly to her mom. I followed my daughter into her room where she admitted that she had done wrong and needed to apologize. I said, “Okay, let’s go.” I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t ready to say “I’m sorry” but needed some time in her room. I knew that her mom was down the hall ready and wanting to forgive her to restore that relationship. My daughter did not experience being forgiven until she repented.

  2. Hi Brett,
    As to Myth #1 – I didn’t say that forgiveness wasn’t for the offending party, only that, amongst two flawed humans, we probably shouldn’t look at it as “primarily” (or perhaps “exclusively” would be a better word) for the offending party. The primary benefit the offending party receives when being forgiven is reconciliation in that human relationship. The vertical reconciliation/forgiveness from God is MOST important, but is a different issue than the forgiveness from another human.

    My point in Myth #1 is that we avoid the foolish idea that if we don’t forgive someone, we’re holding something over them and causing them some damage. ONLY if that person desires for this relationship to be reconciled. The real damage being done is to the offended party who refuses to “aphiemi” (i.e. let it go).

    As to Myth #3 – Again, I think you’re mistaking the difference in God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness to one another. There is also a difference between Objective forgiveness (has the offended party done what is necessary to forgive) and Subjective forgiveness (has the offending party received that and the relationship been reconciled).

    To your point, without repentance, yes, there still can be forgiveness, cf. Rom. 5:8. Logically, 2000+ years before I was ever born, Christ had done everything objectively necessary to forgive me of my sins – this was long before I came to faith, sinned, or ever dreamed of repenting. And yet, the forgiveness was fully present. God forgiving me (objectively) was NOT dependent on me repenting. Consequently, when it comes to our relationships with other humans, as seen by the example of God, our objective forgiveness is NOT dependent on their repentance. Our subjective forgiveness (i.e. relational reconciliation), however, IS.

    You explain that dichotomy between objective & subjective forgiveness pretty well in your last paragraph – “My daughter did not experience being forgiven until she repented.” Her subjective experience and relational reconciliation did not occur until after she repented. Nonetheless, “her mom was down the hall ready and wanting to forgive” – that means her mom had already “let go of” (aphiemi) the offense and was no longer holding it against your daughter. Mom had objectively forgiven, but was still waiting for repentance to subjectively forgive.

    The biggest problem with getting these two things confused is that:

    1) from a vertical standpoint (us with God), by saying no one is forgiven (in any sense) until they repent, you’d be turning our repentance into a cause of God’s grace. Then grace is not really grace.

    2) from a horizontal standpoint (us with each other), by saying no one is forgiven (in any sense) until they repent, you run back into the problem of Myth #1 – whenever we don’t get a good “I’m sorry” from someone, we are left holding the baggage of the offense they’ve caused against us. LOTS of people won’t apologize they way they should to us in life. This could leave us bitter, jaded people, rather people who live in peace. Our lack of forgiveness at that point would be spiritually (and psychologically) destructive.

    • Brett Peterson says:

      Pastor Hein,Thank you very much for putting up with my babbling on comment, as well as responding to it. I always enjoy your blog, and the new perspective you encourage regarding the various topics.Brett Peterson

    • AnonyMouse says:

      >>>>Our subjective forgiveness (i.e. relational reconciliation), however, IS.<<<<

      I'm a little concerned that you seem to equate forgiveness with reconciliation. They are not the same, and, in many cases, forgiving someone does not mean you have to reconcile with them, or even that you should. For example, while I'm sure you would counsel a victim of rape to forgive the rapist, I sincerely hope you would never tell her (or him) that s/he has to reconcile with the rapist. A victim of rape should never have to return to a relationship with the person who raped them.

      Of course, how you define forgiveness and reconciliation may be different from how I'm reading your words.

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