“I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay, I know you didn’t mean to.”

We hear (and probably participate) in this type of exchange all the time. The problem though happens when we use the “I’m sorry” and the “It’s okay” when we are discussing sin rather than a mistake. Sin is always a grave mistake. But a mistake is not always a sin.

Feeling sorry.

There have been numerous times in my life I can recall feeling truly and deeply sorry for something. What most of these moments have in common is that they involved remorse over things that I accidentally and mistakenly did. I stood someone up for a meeting, forgot to email someone back or accidentally made things harder for someone I care about. I also feel deeply sorry for the pain people are experiencing due to sin’s curse when I hear stories of sickness or tragedy. You see, feeling sorry is about my emotional response of remorse to something that I have either done or am witnessing around me. But sometimes we also use “I’m sorry” as a response for the sin that we commit.

I remember at the beginning of our marriage when my husband would tell me he was sorry. In my super cool (arrogant) way I would often reply, “Yep, I’m sorry for that too.” What I really meant was, we could feel sorry for all kinds of things, but our feelings of remorse don’t heal the brokenness that comes between us when we sin against one another.  While my delivery was admittedly rude and unhelpful, the point I was making to my husband wasn’t too far off from the truth. My husband’s“sorry” didn’t acknowledge what had actually transpired. Was he sorry that we now had to discuss what I felt had gone wrong? Sorry that he now had to deal with me? Was he just trying to get me off his back? What “I’m sorry” doesn’t do is take responsibility for the pain and hurt caused by specific sin so that true forgiveness and reconciliation can follow.

Needing forgiveness.

When we sin against God and the people around us, turning from that sin toward reconciliation actually begins with confession and then repentance . . . not just expressing emotional remorse. Of course we can still be sorry that we sinned, but to repent we also must ask ourselves, what are we really sorry for? Are we sorry that we got caught? Or are we sorry that we didn’t love God – and other people – like we should have in that particular moment? Does the same motivation to say “I’m sorry” move us to true repentance for our sin? “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4).  

When we sin against one another, God requires confession and repentance not because He is arrogant like I was as a newlywed, but because if we confess and repent, then we get to experience His kindness and goodness. We get to experience being deeply loved despite our sin. When we confess and repent to one another, we find true reconciliation with those we have sinned against, as they are able to freely forgive us. Confession and repentance free us relationally to pursue healing with those we have sinned against more than “I’m sorry” ever could. They lead us into deeper relationship with both God and the people around us.

Confessing our need for confession.

I would challenge you to do an experiment. You can lead your children in this way (or try it for yourself!). Confessing “I sinned against you when I said ‘XYZ’ to you because I was desiring for you to do what I wanted. I was trying to control the situation because I’m not trusting God. I am sorry that I hurt you because I love you. I will seek to draw near to God and trust him more. Will you forgive me?” is way different than “I’m sorry I did that.” Confession of sin for repentance is literally harder to get out of our mouths. We feel confession more deeply because we are admitting our need and our shortcomings more deeply. It’s a confession of our ugliness. But only in confessing our ugliness can we find the mercy that covers it.

The truth is, the sin we commit is never a passive accident, but an active byproduct of our hearts. When I am disbelieving the truth of God, when I am trying to put myself above others, when I am not thinking rightly about God and his people, when I am not doing the things I ought to out of love for him, this leads to my sinful actions against other people. It’s my flesh that causes me to sin. I’m the problem. I may be unaware of how all the contributing factors line up to produce a sinful response in me. I may not even be sinning consciously, but when it comes to my own sin, I am always culpable. The great news is that when I recognize my sin, there is a way out. It is the only one-way out laced with beauty and freedom: to call my sin by name and confess it before a loving God who forgives abundantly and chooses not to let sin define his children (Heb 18:2).

Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.