What it Means to Say “I’m Sorry”




Wendy Donahue, a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, recently penned an article entitled “Give and take: The sport of apologizing.”  Our local Tampa Bay Times (TBT) picked it up.  While reading it, I was reminded of how difficult it is to simply say from the heart “I’m sorry.” It’s reminiscent of the 1976 hit by Elton John, when he crooned the mournful ballad “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

But it also occurred to me  how the word “sorry” seems to have changed its meaning and usage in our 21st century vocabulary. British journalist, Brandon O’Neill made this observation when he wrote, “These days, we use the word sorry not only to express sorrow for a misdemeanor, but also as an alternative to “pardon” (“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”) and “excuse me” (as in saying sorry when we bump into someone – or even, rather bizarrely, when they bump into us)”.

If we’re not careful saying, “I’m sorry” can become an overused euphemism that really lacks sincerity, or even speaks to an issue that merits an apology.

The words “sorry” and “sorrow” have a connection in origin and etymology. They share the idea of pain, suffering and distress.  Saying “I’m sorry” ought to be rooted in sorrow. Being sorry means to feel regret.  Compunction. Remorse.  Sorrow is an expression of grief, sadness or distress caused by a loss, disappointment or pain.

When the apostle Paul wrote the first letter to the Christians at Corinth he had to correct error and condemn sin in a very pointed manner.  The letter was effective and corrections were made.  So, in the second letter he wrote, “ Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing” (2 Cor 7:9).

There are several things we can learn from this.

(1) Being sorry means to accept personal responsibility for wrong-doing.  An apology that blames others is not really an expression of guilt or regret.

(2) Being sorry should be the result of godly sorrow.  We’ve all heard apologies that sounded contrived or coerced.  Sometimes people are sorry they got caught.  That kind of sorrow is a carnal sorrow, not a godly sorrow.

(3) Being sorry should lead to repentance.  To repent is to change. To correct one’s course.  To make amends.  It is a change of heart that results in a change of behavior.  To say you are sorry, but to continue engaging in the same hurtful actions is insincere and hypocritical.

A couple of other thoughts may be appropriate to effective apology.  When possible apologize in person.  Not by phone. Email. Letter. Or Text.  There is something efficacious about looking someone in the eye and saying, “I’m sorry.”  Don’t make excuses by blaming someone else or circumstances.  Avoid any “apology” the begins, “I’m sorry, but..”  Or I’m sorry, if….”  You know where those sentence are going!

Ali McGraw’s character in the classic movie Love Story is  famous for saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  That may have sounded romantic in the movie, but quite the opposite is true.  Real life is about relationships where people make mistakes, use poor judgment, forget, or even sin.  And such actions always impact someone we love. Family. Friends. Neighbors. Or brethren.   So be willing to apologize.  Simply.  Sincerely.  Succinctly.  Because true love is always willing to say, “I’m sorry.”