“I’m Sorry” Versus True Repentance

Dr. Lucy Ann MollFor Those Seeking Hope1 Comment

"I'm sorry"

What’s the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and true repentance? Does this difference matter? This article by Lucy Ann Moll, who counsels out of our Winfield office and by Skype, first appeared here and is used with permission.  BCC logo

When you hurt someone’s feelings, is it enough to say “I’m sorry”?

Or do these words fall flat when spoken without godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10)? Is there a preferred alternative? Is so, what?

Years ago these questions swirled in my mind when one of my children called her sibling a name, snatched an item without permission, or smacked her on the head.

In this short article, I’ll share:

  1. an experiment that flopped, and
  2. the change that made the difference.

The main point: Don’t raise a little pharisee who knows the right words to say. Instead, train up a child to who desires to please the Lord.

The ‘I’m Sorry’ Method

Several Christian moms at my church, Bible study, and MOPS swore by a method to change their dear children’s behavior after a skirmish. Picture this scenario:

Carrie tiptoes into her older sister Mary’s closet and snags a super cool top to wear. Later Mary sees Carrie at school in her top and pointed words fly like daggers. Later at home their mom learns of the problem and tells the swiper to return the top and say “I’m sorry” followed by “I forgive you” from the other sister, then they hug. She requires both girls to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” for the mean words, and they hug again.

The mom in the scenario truly believes she’s getting to the root of the problem and that the girls learned a valuable lesson about taking without asking first and using hateful words. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? How did you discipline your kids?

My Experiment

Sort of hopeful (but not confident) this method would work, I tried a week-long experiment with my three children. I clued in my husband. A united front, right?

The plan: When one child was mean in some way to another, the offending kid had to say, “I’m sorry” whether or not she felt sorry. The offended kid had to say, “I forgive you” whether or not she truly forgave her—and they hugged.

The goal: to instill a humble, contrite spirit leading to true repentance.

But did it work?

Ah, no.

Laura called Julia a name, said “I’m sorry” while rolling her eyes, and Julia said “I forgive you” with great enthusiasm, bless her heart. Their hug resembled a vice grip you might witness on WWE. Within minutes John hit Julia in the face with a bouncy ball. It was an accident.

“I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you.”

Vice-grip hug.

Those two began throwing things at each other just to get to the vice-grip hug. Laura was like “whatever” and escaped to her bedroom.

When a lamp crashed and a cat flew out of the way, I stopped the experiment. I could not handle another six days! 

The experiment flopped.

My children said the right words without an inkling of repentance. I was raising vice-grip loving, little Pharisees!

Change That Makes the Difference

The real point behind genuine sorrow is repentance. Worldly sorrow is fakery; it’s death.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)

“Sorrow” in this context refers to sorrow that is according to the will of God and produced by the Holy Spirit, says pastor John MacArthur whose Grace to You media ministry reaches millions. True repentance is impossible apart from genuine sorrow over one’s sin.

sorryThis was my problem and my kids’ problem: The “I’m sorry” was just words, not genuine sorrow.

Worldly sorrow has no redeeming value. This type of “I’m sorry” results from getting caught in a sin or from wounded pride, and leads to shame, despair, self-pity, and even death (see Matthew 27:3 for the account of Judas’ hanging).

Genuine repentance is at the very heart of one’s salvation. Believers repent of their sin continually as they turn from loveless thoughts, words, behaviors, and motivations and turn to God.

A person who is truly repentant experiences change in the inner person. Consider this:

But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:18-19 (NIV)

The Pharisees were experts in “good” behavior—as my children became adept at saying “I’m sorry” and vice-grip hugs—and missed heart change. True repentance cuts to the heart.

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One Comment on ““I’m Sorry” Versus True Repentance”

  1. When a person succumbs to the demand that he apologize, ie. repent, rather than apologizing voluntarily, his apology is meaningless. He is doing it for himself not for the person to whom he apologizes or repents. His apology is therefor useless.

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