On Saying I’m Sorry

Written by Rhonda Alstott

One of my favorite artists, Sir Elton John, once sang the words “sorry seems to be the hardest word”. The older I get the more I would have to say I agree. A sincere and heartfelt apology seems to be a disappearing thing. Anyone in any type of relationship has experienced hurt at one time or another. We’ve all had conflict with others. We’ve been on the side of feeling hurt and we’ve been on the side of hurting others. It’s part of our human condition. Why is it so hard to apologize when we have hurt someone?


I once read a quote that said,

“Apologizing does not always mean you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value your relationship more than your ego.”

-Mark Mathews


The more I age, the more I value relationships. The more I value relationships, the more I value an apology…


As Christians, we have come into the family of faith through repentance. Repentance can be described as having a sincere remorse or regret for our thoughts and actions. We, in turn, tell God we are sorry and real repentance follows with a changed attitude, behavior, and life. It’s transformative. I believe that’s how our Creator designed it. It is the way we can be reconciled to God. It is His gift to us, and because we are reconciled to God we have the call to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). I believe saying I am sorry when we have hurt someone is part of reconciliation. I’ve witnessed lately that people can take responsibility for a mistake by saying “my bad” or “yep I did it, it was my fault” and never say I am sorry for what they have done. It seems like defensiveness and excuses are the standard places many resort to when it’s been brought to their attention that they have hurt someone. To have health and healing in our relationships, I believe we have to not only accept responsibility for our words and actions, but apologize for the ways we have hurt others. I believe it is part of living godly lives where we recognize we have hurt someone and do our best to make it right. The good news is that we have been given everything we need to do this with (2 Peter 1:3).


I remember so well one of the first and hardest apologies I ever had to make as an adult. It was 1990 and I had just finished working on a team that did a weekend retreat in the Kentucky Women’s Prison. God opened my eyes to some of the ways I was living in a different kind of prison that weekend because I harbored deep resentment towards my father for all the hurt I had as a child and teen. I called him as soon as I returned home. I told him I was sorry because I had resentment and bitterness in my heart. He came back with an apology for the childhood I lived and took responsibility for some hurt he had inflicted. We both needed to say we were sorry. We both needed forgiveness. That moment forever changed my relationship with my dad. I was able to love and accept who he was. It was also my first big adult lesson in what humility looks like…it took humility for both of us to say I am sorry. It was also one of the most spiritually rewarding things I have ever done. Chains fell from my heart that day and I was set free to love my dad and work on healing from my past.


When I’ve taken the risk to apologize to those I love in a sincere way, my relationship with them has always been restored to a better place than before the apology. It has paved the way for better relationships in the future. I remember a few years back when I felt the weight of the hurt that I had inflicted on one of my children. I swallowed the lump of pride I had rising in my throat and told them how sorry I was. I was specific. I told them exactly what I had done that was wrong. I fought the urge to make excuses for my poor behavior. We were sitting outside in a downtown restaurant. I cried so hard I had to put on my sunglasses to keep from being a spectacle in the crowded cafe, but what really mattered is that I was sorry and told my child so. I was assured I was forgiven and our relationship was restored and set on the path of healing and wholeness. I am blessed to consider my adult children some of my best friends today because of our collective willingness to say I am sorry. They have apologized to me as well for things that they have done and said. Saying I am sorry to one another has made our lives richer.


I was alone with my mother when she went to be with Jesus in the early hours on a Monday morning. The nurse gave me a few moments to be with her. I wept and told her how very sorry I was. I had taken care of my mother for most of my life. I was deliberate and intentional about the decisions I made for and with her, but I still felt the need to tell her I was sorry for all the ways I failed her. I told her I was so sorry for how much suffering and heartache she had to go through. I knew that it wasn’t my fault, but it still helped me to verbalize how sorry I was. I knew that my mother didn’t hold those things against me, but I held those things against me. I was the one that needed to hear I was sorry. It’s funny how saying I am sorry can free you from all the “what ifs” and “maybe I should haves”.


As I’ve gotten older I’ve also recognized when I’m hurt and need an apology. I tend to respond like a wounded dog when I am hurting. I get under a bush and try to bite anyone that tries to help. I’ve gotten better at recognizing that my bitterness will grow unless I have told the person they have hurt me. Being honest and vulnerable about the wound gives them an opportunity to make peace before more hurt is done. Wisdom has taught me that it’s ok to know what you need and ask for it. If we don’t address these hurts as they happen, they accumulate and can make the bitterness grow. As I become increasingly aware of my own mortality these days, I want to love better in all my relationships. I don’t want hurt and bitterness to fester and grow.


I also want to say what a heartfelt apology isn’t. It isn’t a flippant “I am sorry you are upset.” This takes no responsibility for the wound. It just acknowledges that you are upset.


In my life I have had to forgive those who have apologized to me. I have also had to forgive those who haven’t apologized to me. Both have been out of obedience to Jesus. I cannot read God’s word without seeing how important forgiveness is in God’s grand scheme of redemption and reconciliation. Receiving an apology has been a catalyst in my work of forgiveness. Like I said, I have had to forgive without one, but I liken it to getting over an infection without the right medicine. Sure, I can get better, but it usually takes a lot longer to fight through it.


This past year has been a trying time for all of us. We have all lost people we love. We have watched relationships struggle. We have witnessed pride and destructive decisions that tear families apart. We have so much suffering we cannot control right now, but we have a lot we can control. That’s what I try to focus on. Is there suffering or hurt that I can bring some peace and healing to? Is there someone I need to offer a sincere apology to?


Romans 12:18 tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men”. Maybe learning how to apologize will help us do so. Saying I am sorry may feel strange and awkward at first, but as most things go, practice does make it easier. The more we practice this important step, the more we help foster relationships based on forgiveness. The more we foster relationships built on forgiveness the more we experience peace.