Ray PenningsIt’s traditional to head into a new year full of resolve fuelled by last year’s regret.

Our commitment to renewed discipline, diets and dream-achieving over the coming 12 months is all too often driven by short-term overindulgence during Christmas festivities.

More importantly, there’s a lingering sense of another year lost by not doing what we ought to have done, and by doing what we ought not to have done, in the fine, ancient words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

As much as we are impelled to improve, many of us also feel that apology and forgiveness, to ourselves and to others, is justified and beneficial. Unfortunately, we repeatedly forget that sorry is more than just a word. Contrition that’s merely on the lips changes nothing in the heart or, for that matter, around the waistline, within the workplace, inside troubled relationships.

Before we invest in hope of much-needed renewal, it’s worth doing some due diligence on what saying sorry really means, when it can be accepted as closing a matter, and how it can truly move us to the new by letting us leave old regrets in God’s hands.

We can all think of examples in the public and private aspects of our lives. Three that come to mind:

  • We learn that someone we know, esteemed and trusted, has been trash-talking us or even engaging in vicious badmouthing and rumour mongering. Confronted privately, the person acknowledges the comments were half-truths, but seems to think a private “I’m sorry” fixes the matter, with no need to retract the falsehoods.
  • The life of someone we considered solid and reliable, measured and trustworthy abruptly blows apart in revelations of marital infidelity, sexual misconduct, legal impropriety or damaging dereliction of responsibility. Yet the person responsible seems to expect friends to rally around in support on the basis of “I’m sorry,” regardless of the legal, social or moral consequences of the behaviour.
  • A public official seriously transgresses codes of ethics or even the law. Caught and judged culpable, the miscreant stumbles through a public “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” non-apology, promises to do better in future, and implies that because it was done for country, party or ideology, everyone will understand, and all should be forgiven and forgotten.

All three are occasions when “I’m sorry” comes from the lips, but we simply doesn’t resolve the core problems. So how do we distinguish the passed-off apology from authentic remorse?

As a person of faith, I believe in forgiveness. Presumably, I should be among the first to accept words of contrition. My identity is that of a forgiven sinner. I like giving people multiple chances, in part because I know that I mess up plenty and need them myself.

But contrition requires more than formula.

I can’t judge motives or thought. For all I know, what I experience might involve sincere, heartfelt contrition. On the other hand, there’s equal evidence to believe what’s offered are mere butt-covering words from those who’ve been caught and are looking to bury uncomfortable episodes.

Plausibility requires both words and behaviour, even the passage of time, and visible evidence of changed behaviour. It requires the person seeking forgiveness to acknowledge the damage to others that their misdeeds have done.

It’s been said that both justice and change have three parts: regret, restitution and rehabilitation. To honestly realize what was done was wrong, to undo the damage and restore things as best as possible, and to live in a manner that shows that the mistakes of the past are part of former ways and the lessons of our mistakes have been learned – it’s all part of saying I’m sorry.

Regrets? We’ve all had a few. But if we are to truly make ourselves new, sorry has to be the hardest, and most honest, word.

Ray Pennings is executive vice-president of think-tank Cardus.

Ray is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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