When You Can’t Say “I’m sorry.”

The argument is over, your heart rate has finally slowed, and you’re left in the deafening quiet with your racing thoughts. There is one sentence that feels too difficult for you to utter aloud- “I’m sorry.”

It is helpful to think of all patterns of thinking, behaving, and relating to others as “fruit” that grows on the tree of our life. It is visible, and it impacts us and others in tangible ways. Our culture offers a plethora of self-help approaches and tools to change our fruit. Only focusing on behavior change, however, is equally as wise as cutting apples off a branch, gluing on pears, and calling it a pear tree. Jesus taught this principle of trees and fruit in Matthew 7:15-20 and Luke 6:43-45. God’s good design for creation is such that we can identify a type of tree by what it grows. Likewise, we can know the condition of a heart based on the “fruit” that is evident in a life.

One of the many unhealthy fruits that can grow in our lives is a disdain for apologizing. All humans act out of what we believe, so a pervasive pattern of refusing to say, “I’m sorry” may be fueled by beliefs such as, “Admitting fault is weakness,” or “Love means never having to say sorry,” or the even more toxic belief of “I’m never wrong; I’m always the victim.” Deep in the soil of our heart is the root belief that shapes all others- what we believe about who God is.

God has created all things with purpose and order. Our beliefs and actions do not happen in a vacuum, but rather there are traceable root-patterns that help us understand, and Lord willing repent of, our sinful fruit. If we believe God is a cold, difficult-or-impossible-to-please father, who expects us to earn his love and approval, then it makes sense to have a harsh, graceless rubric for ourselves and others. If we believe God created all things, but then distanced himself from us and now watches us struggle to measure up, then it makes sense that our identities precariously teeter on the razor-edge of accomplishment. Deep down we believe that we must achieve our salvation, or sanctification, or both. We mentally berate ourselves when we don’t “hit the mark,” and feel the same sense of angry disappointment when others let us down. Hardening our heart, digging in our heals, and tightening our lips makes evident the root of self-righteousness.

What is the solution to unhealthy fruit in our lives? We can learn to manage behavior for a season, willing ourselves, with white knuckles, to “do better.” But right actions done out of wrong motives are still sinful. Thankfully, the answer lies in the same, deep root already mentioned- our belief about God. We have graciously been given all that we need to know who God actually is. He has given us his Word, which is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), his Son, Jesus, who lived a visible life as the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3), and the perfect counselor, the Holy Spirit, living inside us who are in Christ (1 Cor. 3:16; Romans 5:5; 8:9,26).

The Bible is not primarily about us or how we should live. It’s about God, who he is and the story of his creation, redemption in the face of our sin, and restoration of all things. God is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger, full of love and forgiveness (Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 1:4-10). He is empathetic to our human condition and our weakness, having himself been tempted in every way we have, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He is a loving Creator, having knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), with the purpose of knowing him and displaying his glory to others (Eph. 2:4-7). He is our redeemer, rescuing us from the domain of darkness and transferring us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, by the atoning work on the cross (Col. 1:13-14). He is near to us and equips us with all that we need to live a life that points to him (Eph. 1:3; 6:10-11). He has chosen to make his strength even more evident in our weakness, not in our “being right-ness” (2 Cor. 12:9). He delights in us (Psalm 147:11; 149:4). God, as creator, gets to tell his creation how to function. Our lives are not our own, but belong to him (Jer. 10:23).

When we rightly understand who God is, we will then embrace the truth about who we are and how we are meant to live out of that identity. As I internalize the truth that I am saved by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, I am set free from the pressure to perform and the graceless pride it produces. A heart that recognizes its dependence on grace will grow the fruit of being gracious to others. Obedience to our perfect Father and glorious King will be a joyful replacement to the bitter fruit we grow apart from him!
God tells us clearly how we should treat others, which includes how we should respond to conflict. Jesus’ commands are not contingent upon where we fall on the “rightness scale.” They are consistently applicable, offensive to our flesh, impossible apart from Him, and always for our joy!
He tells us to die to ourselves. He says to lay our lives down if we wish to find them. He commands us to consider others more highly than ourselves, to be humble and lowly in spirit, and to speak gently and in ways that build others up. (Mark 8:35; Luke 9:23; Philippians 2:3; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)

I refuse to say I’m sorry because I would rather ignore my neediness and pretend I’m not wrong. I will spend infinitely more energy weaving and wearing self-justifications than it would take to run to Christ in humility, remembering that he already knows my faults and has already paid for my sin. I cling to my filthy rags of self-righteousness, instead of embracing his spotless robes of grace, which he compassionately extends to me. But even in my stubborn rebellion, he moves into my heart and reminds me of the truth again. He lovingly pries open my hands and shows me again the scars on his own. Already being granted the Father’s forgiveness, which Jesus died to guarantee for me, frees me to ask for it from others, without fear. Regardless of their response, I can demonstrate the grace I have received by doing all I can to make amends. I trust that God will do what he says, and I find life in those two simple words, “I'm sorry.”


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