Despite what Peter Cetera told us, it’s not really hard to say, “I’m sorry.” Those two words are easy to blurt out in the heat of an argument, as a simple attempt to diffuse somebody else’s anger. Saying, “I’m sorry” isn’t an admission of guilt as much as it’s a statement of regret.

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” 

“I’m sorry that what I did made you angry.” 

“I’m sorry, but I did what I felt I had to do.” 

Those aren’t really apologies, and they’re unlikely to bring reconciliation to a fractured relationship. Matthew 6:26 says that King Herod was “sorry” for beheading John the Baptist. That’s awesome that he was sorry, but “sorry” and a really skilled neck surgeon would still amount to one dead prophet. Herod regretted having John’s head removed, but he did it anyway, because he wanted to save face at a party. His regret didn’t affect his behavior one iota, nor did it imply true repentance for his actions.

When our kids were very young, a friend suggested to us that instead of making them say, “I’m sorry” to each other, we try a different phrase:

“Will you forgive me for [pulling your hair, calling you a potty name, stuffing you into the toy box, etc.]?” 

Although I often fail at this, I’ve started trying to implement it in my own relationships, particularly with my wife. “I was wrong to [snap at you, eat all the cookies you made for your friends, insult Downton Abbey, etc.]. Will you please forgive me?”

Asking for forgiveness is harder — and more effective — than saying, “I’m sorry.” First, because when you ask forgiveness, you’re taking responsibility for what you did wrong. You’re acknowledging that your own sinful choices contributed to the conflict. It forces you to verbalize your own sin and confess it to somebody else. That’s painful to do, but absolutely essential. You can’t change your sinful patterns if you don’t admit them. Second, asking for forgiveness places you at the mercy of the other person. It’s an inherently humble act, in which you acknowledge that reconciliation is a two-way street. You can holler, “I’m sorry,” and then walk away before the hard work of conflict resolution is completed. You can’t do that when you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait in humility for the other person’s answer. Forgiveness can be extended in one direction — after all, that’s what God has done for us in Jesus — but relational reconciliation usually requires both parties to participate.

So the next time you find yourself in a conflict, ask this: “Am I even partially to blame?” If so, practice these words: “Will you forgive me for…?”

Yes, it’s even harder than saying, “I’m sorry.” But it’s immeasurably better.

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