I once sat there while two people I know were having a pretty almighty row. One of them had made quite a bit of a blunder and hurt the other person’s feelings, but (and don’t we all do this?) refused to admit they were in the wrong. They were not backing down; they were listing all the (irrelevant) things that were wrong with the other person to distract from what was happening right now, they were arguing their side tooth and nail rather than just apologising and fixing what they broke. Tensions were high, alcohol was involved, and it was just not the context in which a decent resolution was going to occur.
But eventually things wound down, the heated debate simmered and this person – who still hadn’t apologised to the other – noticed that I, an uninvolved bystander, was upset by what was happening. The actual argument had precious little to do with me, but as a human I am pathetically unable to cope with any and all types of conflict. Even the slightest hint of negativity or criticism – whether or not it is aimed at me – does something to me that I can’t quite explain, and more often than not I end up bursting into tears. It’s one of my least favourite things about myself and I genuinely wish I could help it, but crying at conflict is a pretty standard, albeit irritating, behaviour for me.
So this person – the one who was in the wrong – saw I was crying, put their arm around me and said something that did not make it better in the slightest: “I’m sorry I upset you.” Now, I’m not saying they didn’t mean it – I’m absolutely sure they did – but that wasn’t the point. They weren’t saying sorry for what they did to the other person, they weren’t saying they wouldn’t do it again or they would try to do better next time. They were saying, “I’m sorry that you got upset by this.” They hadn’t recognised the behaviour that had led to this situation (and therefore learned what to avoid next time); they had just recognised that a bad situation was happening, and they probably owed someone an apology.
But then it hit me like a tonne of bricks: I do that. I mess up and refuse to admit it, because it’s easier to breeze past it than have an awkward conversation. I say, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but…” I apologise to God because I know He’s not happy with the things I’ve done, rather than personally being sorry for doing them because I know they’re wrong. Let’s take gossiping, for example. I cannot keep a secret to save my life (this blog is putting me on quite the pedestal, isn’t it?) It’s not malicious; my brain just makes connections if a person’s name is mentioned and goes, “I know a story about that person!” And before I know it, I’ve shared some fairly juicy gossip that I definitely shouldn’t have. Do I wish I could untell that secret? Yes. Do I apologise to God or the person involved for being such a rubbish friend? Sometimes. Do I mean it? Yes and no.
If I’m being really honest with myself, I’ve made very little effort to change my attitude towards sharing secrets. I’ve told new friends, “Oh, don’t tell me anything – I’m terrible with secrets” and left it to their discretion. My friends know they have to sit me down and look me dead in the eye and say, “Now, Chloe, this is a secret. You are really not allowed to tell anyone, OK?” But have I actively tried to change my behaviour? No. An awful part of me loves being the one with the good gossip, and thinks it up to me to judge whether or not a secret is serious enough to keep. Even though I know objectively gossiping is wrong, in all honesty I really only say sorry to God because I know He isn’t a fan of it. I say to God, “Sorry I upset you,” instead of “I know I did something wrong here. With your help, I want to do better next time.”
So I need to start saying sorry, and actually realise what it is I’m saying sorry for. I’m sure most Christians can recite the “Thou Shalt Not” rule book off by heart, but do we have a personal conviction that we shouldn’t do those things? We’re probably all set against the biggies like murder, but I wonder if we put other things, like lying or unhealthy sexual behaviour or wanting what other people have, into a bit of a grey area. We vaguely know God doesn’t like those things, but we have no intention of really stopping. So are we saying sorry because we know we’re meant to apologise, or do we come to God because we mean it and want to change? Of course we don’t want to upset God or the people around us and we should say sorry when we do, but if we only apologise for that, if we only say sorry for the reaction we caused and not the behaviour that caused it, then I wonder if our apologies are really worth anything at all.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti