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The Psalmist’s Guide to Saying Sorry

Apparently, the average British person says sorry eight times a day. Apologising is something of a national sport for us. And like all our other national sports, while we devote a lot of our time and attention to doing it, we’re still, somehow, not that good at it.

I don’t have any evidence or statistics to back up any of what I’m about to write. But I suspect, looking at the papers and keeping a rough check on the number of times a day that I say sorry myself, that many of our sorrys are not actually sorrys at all.

There’s I’m-sorry-that-you-feel-that-way sorrys. The mistakes-were-made sorrys. The I’d-just-like-to-take-this-opportunity-to-apologise-for-the-delays-that-we-are-experiencing sorrys. I think I say the word sorry at least five hundred times a day. But most of the time, I mean something else. Something like, ‘Thank you.’ Or, ‘I didn’t hear you.’ Or, ‘Ouch, you’ve trodden on my foot.’

And it’s a problem, because all these over-sorrys and not-sorry-sorrys make the whole business of sorting out your actual screw-ups kind of complicated. A sorry that doesn’t really deal with what’s happened robs everyone; not just the person who’s being sorried at, but the person who is sorry, too; you’re left with a sense of unfinished business. A niggling sense of guilt that stands at the door.

So I thought it would be helpful to have a look at the bible and get some help on how to say sorry in a way that properly deals with things.

In Psalm 51, King David has made something of a boo-boo. He started off by being a bit lazy. It escalates. His laziness leads to some adultery, which leads to a pregnancy, which leads to an accidental-on-purpose murder, and the whole thing is packaged up with lot of lies to keep it looking respectable.

You can read all the gory details in 2 Samuel 12. But what I’m interested in is this; how do you meaningfully say sorry for something like that? And how do you move on from having done something like that without being emotionally defined by it for the rest of your life?

This is the prayer that David goes to God with on being exposed. I think it’s an incredible reminder of God’s patience and grace, and a helpful framework for praying through our own blips and blunders.

He reminds himself of God’s mercy

‘Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions’

At first, I thought that David was helpfully reminding God of his mercy, before telling him what he did. But then you’ve got to assume that God already knows that. And, of course, God knows what David did, too. So what’s this about?

I think there’s a sense of David reminding himself of God’s mercy, here. Guilt can make God seem oppressive or judgmental, because that’s what guilt expects. David reminds himself that God is a good God. And because of that, forgiveness is possible. And because forgiveness is possible, he is able to ask for it.

He’s brutally honest about what he did

‘For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me
Against you, you only, have I sinned
And done what is evil in your sight’

There’s no dressing it up. David doesn’t frame his admission with some of the good things he’s been doing, to balance out the bad. He doesn’t gloss over the gravity of what he did. It’s raw, but it’s honest, and it enables him to move on without any denial.

He doesn’t try to make up it

‘For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
You will not be pleased with a burnt offering
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

There’s a temptation, to offer God all sorts of making up gifts at this point. Would you like an Ox, God? A car? Whatever it takes to get you to forgive me! But David has this incredible awareness that he has nothing to offer God. What is it that God wants from us? To admit that we are broken. To allow him to mend us.

He asks God to heal him from doing these things

‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’

He recognises that his actions are a symptom of a deeper problem. And he asks God to heal him from that. God is both the wronged party and the solution to the problem.

He asks God to heal him from his guilt

‘Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.’

There’s something outrageous about this bit. A man is dead, and it’s very much David’s fault. To ask to be forgiven for that is one thing. But is David really asking God to forgive him from feeling guilty about it, too?

But perhaps our attachment to guilt is our way of trying to earn forgiveness. Feeling bad feels like the least we can do to make up for our errors.

David doesn’t think that way. His prayers are for joy, unity, celebration with his God and an end to guilt. It’s a prayer that should put hope in your heart in those moments that feel as though you’ve blown it forever.

Forgiveness is always possible. If we will just be honest about our need for it.


Image: sorry by Alex Cockroach, used under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

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