Those of us who lived in the 1970s might remember the movie, Love Story, which had not only a rather lovely music score, but also a catchphrase with these words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The phrase appears a couple of times in the movie and the book and was eventually made into a song. So embedded in our culture, it became one of those great soundbites catchphrases that sounds so, well, loving and intimate.
Alas, it’s not really true.
People who love must say, ‘I’m sorry’ and say it again and again. Love relationships, like marriage, require it to clear the air in the relationship when one caused an offense against her or his beloved. It first is an acknowledgement that something ‘happened’, and my responsibility for it happening, and that it was offensive, and that I care about how you feel about it and also feel badly because of it, and how it has effected you. Now this is a human example in a sort of generic form, but it applies in other human relationships and arguably in our relationship with God although any projection of human thoughts or behavior or feelings isn’t sound.
It might also be said that love begins when we say “I’m sorry” or maybe more precisely, when I care so much for how my sinful thoughts and actions influence our relationship in a destructive way.
Why is “I’m sorry” so Difficult?
There are many reasons why it’s hard to get to ‘I’m sorry.’ You probably know them all. To get to “I’m sorry.” there requires self-awareness, humility and an acknowledgment of my inadequacies and spiritual brokenness. If we lack any of these, we will be unable to (really) say “I’m sorry.” Well maybe we can say it, but meaning it is a lot harder.
Self-awareness is a sign of human maturity. Children see the world as an extension of themselves. Maturing psychologically and emotionally means recognizing the (incredible) distinctiveness of other persons. They are not me or even like me, sometimes not at all. Our inner thinking often says, “Of course they think that way or feel that or believe that.” But projecting those thoughts, emotions or beliefs on others blocks all relationship. Similarly, sometimes people (even long married couples) will think – ‘well of course he forgives me’ or some similar thought, simply projecting one’s own thoughts or desires. Seeing this in someone today we usually label them as ‘clueless.’
Humility means humbly seeing the other in this distinctive way and then having enough self awareness that I not only can sin and offend God and others, but do. In regard to our relationship with God, this denial is mitigated if we can honestly accepted the Ten Commandments and compare our behaviors (and thoughts) against that external standard. Self-delusion takes place when the only standard for me is myself.[i] Living in denial means surround ourselves in this bubble of self-protection.
But this is a spiritual reality of the soul as well. There are certain diseases (even low level ones) that pump toxins into the bloodstream and a person gets weak, and sometimes utterly delusional. They are wobbly psychologically and emotionally, and spiritually. The disease comes from the sinful passions that overwhelm the soul’s ‘balance’.
This is where David was, before the prophet Nathan showed up.
Here is a rather lengthy comment on this by St. John Chrysostom,
And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent. Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly. However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in purity. However, when the soul is darkened, this very body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior does not depend on age but on the direction of the will. Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just remember that David was found in his venerable years falling into adultery and committing murder; and he reached such a pathetic state that he was unaware that he had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer, was drunk from debauchery1
Here St. John likens this state of mind and heart as a ‘stupor’ like drunkenness.
If you want to know your state of mind and heart, just monitor your thoughts of defensiveness? If we feel that way, like David, we’re usually hiding something we’re ashamed of – and that’s usually something sinful. And defensiveness, strangely, often accompanies psychological denial. In our deepest selves we know we are, or have done, wrong, but can’t accept the thought so we defend ourselves. Likewise we’ll attack others and often accuse them of the very thing we have done.
Nathan was courageous.
The antidote to sin is repentance, and what is necessary to upright the ship is the strength of moral courage. It takes courage to confront sin, even in others, and so much easier to just avoid the conflict. St. John Chrysostom speaks further:
What did the king say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” He did not say, “Who are you who censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness? With what daring did you prevail?” He did not say anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And what did he say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” Therefore, what did Nathan say to him? “And the Lord remitted your sin.” You condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in Scripture was fulfilled: “Be the first one to tell of your transgressions so you may be justified” [Isaiah 43:26]? How toilsome is it to be the first one to declare the sin?”2
David perceived his sin – and regained his senses, his equilibrium.
We can never be unaware of our sin. We have a conscience. We will either
– Deny it
– Blame others for it – Dull its pain
– Or Confess the sin and accuse myself as a sinner
Only this path leads to health. Our sins are confessed so that they can be forgiven. Unless they are confessed they remain unforgiven.
Psalm 50 is all about coming to our senses (like the Prodigal Son) and then the Psalm gives us the perspective which leads us to be able to say, in all honesty and humility, ‘Lord, I am sorry.’ Remember that Judas recognized that he had ‘done wrong’ and effectively sinned, but did not have the courage or faith to come to Jesus and say, ‘I’m sorry!’ Can you imagine what would have happened if He had? Peter too had offended Christ, be he did say, ‘I’m sorry.’
When we come to our senses and recognize our sins and responsibility for them, we have begun the journey of forgiveness and healing which is what Great Lent is about. This opens us to the great expanse of God’s forgiveness.