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 A Seriously Sorry New Year A Seriously Sorry New Year

A Seriously Sorry New Year

Changing the way we apologize, Cardus executive president Ray Pennings writes, can change the way we live our whole lives

Ray Pennings
3 minute read

It’s traditional to head into a new year full of resolve fuelled by last year’s regret.

Our commitment to renewed discipline, diets, and dream achieving over the coming 12 months are all too often driven by short-term over indulgence during Christmas festivities.

More importantly, there’s a lingering sense of another year lost by not doing what we ought to have done, and by doing what we ought not to have done, in the fine, ancient words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

As much as we are impelled to improve, many of us also feel that apology and forgiveness, to ourselves and to others, is justified and beneficial. Unfortunately, we repeatedly forget that “sorry” is more than just a word. Contrition that’s merely on the lips changes nothing in the heart or, for that matter, around the waistline, within the workplace, inside troubled relationships.

Before we invest in hope of much-needed renewal, it’s worth doing some due diligence on saying “sorry” really means, when it can be accepted as closing a matter, and how it can truly move us to the new by letting us leave old regrets in God’s hands.

We can all think of examples in both the public and private aspects of our lives. Three that come to mind:

  • Exhibit A.  We learn that someone we know, esteemed, and trusted, has been trash talking us or even engaging in vicious badmouthing and rumour mongering. Confronted privately, the person acknowledges the comments were half-truths, but seems to think a private “I’m sorry“ fixes the matter, with no need to retract the falsehoods circulated.
  • Exhibit B. The life of someone we considered solid and reliable, measured and trustworthy, abruptly blows apart in revelations of marital infidelity, sexual misconduct, legal impropriety, or damaging dereliction of responsibility. Yet the person responsible seems to expect friends to rally around in support on the basis of “I’m sorry” regardless of the legal, social and moral consequences of the behaviour.
  • Exhibit C. A public official seriously transgresses codes of ethics, or even the law. Caught, judged culpable, the miscreant stumbles through a public “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” non-apology, promises to do better in the future, and implies that because it was done for country, party or ideology, everyone will understand and all should be forgiven and forgotten.

All three are occasions when “I’m sorry” comes from the lips, but we simply don't feel the core problems are in anyway resolved. Two questions arise. First, how do we distinguish the passed-off apology from authentic remorse? Second, what do we do while we’re waiting to make sure?

As a Christian, I believe in forgiveness. Presumably, I should be among the first to accept words of contrition. My identity is that of a forgiven sinner. In a world where forgiveness seems in short supply, I want to be known a generous and forgiving type.  I like giving people multiple chances, in part because I know that I mess up plenty and need them myself.

But contrition requires more than formula.   

I can’t judge motives or thought. For all I know, what I experience might involve sincere, heartfelt contrition.  On the other hand, there is equal evidence to believe what’s offered are mere butt-covering words from those who’ve been “caught” and are looking to bury uncomfortable episodes. 

For me, plausibility requires both words and behaviour, even the passage of time, and visible evidence of changed behaviour.   It requires the person seeking forgiveness to acknowledge the damage to others that their misdeeds have done. A posture of contrition proportionate to the misdeed is part of the gravitas that make the words plausible.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in Christian theology, Jesus came to pay the price for sin, to satisfy Divine justice, and to earn a righteousness so that when sinners say “I’m sorry,” there is a basis for God to say, “You are forgiven.” Apology must, then, come from the hidden place in the heart that only God can see.

It has been said that both justice and change have three parts: regret, restitution, and rehabilitation.  To honestly realize what was done was wrong, to undo the damage and restore things as best as possible, and to live in a manner that it is clear to all that the mistakes of the past are part of “former ways” and the lessons of our mistakes have been learned – it’s all part of saying I’m sorry.

Regrets? We’ve all had a few. But if we are to truly make ourselves new, sorry has to be the hardest, and most honest, word. 

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