Celebrities and politicians have long found themselves facing public scrutiny resulting in an apology for some private or public infraction. After the person in question apologizes the next question usually is, “How sorry are they, really?” Are they sorry they got caught, or are they genuinely remorseful for their actions? When someone tells the world they are sorry, from whom are they seeking forgiveness and how does the public, acting as one collective whole, decide they are forgiven?
Apologies are important. They are expressions that show accountability for an action. It’s a sign of maturity to apologize. We teach our children at an early age to say “they are sorry,” when they take a toy being used by another child. We teach our teenagers to be honest and take responsibility when they scratch the car or come in after curfew. Sometimes we need the people we love to apologize for actions that are bigger than small childhood infractions. When someone has offended or hurt us and when we lose our trust in them, we can question if their apology means anything or not and we may even feel that saying they’re sorry is inconsequential compared to the pain they have inflicted.
Sometimes sorry isn’t enough.
How do you know when an apology is genuine or just a means to an end? How do you know when an apology comes from a sincere place of contrition or if the apology is regret that they got caught?
The thing about an apology is that it is more for the benefit of the person who has committed the infraction, than the person to whom the apology is given. People who are truly sorry, have a guilty conscience and they hope that by saying they our sorry that some how their conscience will be made clean.
John Calvin said, “The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.”
I think as a society we have forgotten the meaning and the importance of true confession. There is no app for confession. There is no short cut. It takes some mental and emotional discipline to find a way to confess a wrong doing, ask for forgiveness, and accept the consequences. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution…Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
October 11 is Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. This day is, essentially, your last appeal, your last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.
To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.
The fact that Donald Trump read an apology saying that he was sorry for what he said 10 years ago about what he would like to do to a woman, makes little difference to me. I do not need an apology. I feel more sorry for him. I wonder if his parents taught him manners. I wonder what provoked him to think it would be o.k. to speak that way, about anyone.
I really hope that Mr. Trump is truly sorry, not because the country need to hear it, but because he needed to say it. I hope he feels a sense of atonement. It would be good for him. He would be a better person. So, I pray he knows what it means to say a prayer of confession and know that he is forgiven. As a Presbyterian, he should know this.
We all need a day of atonement. We all need to confess our sins and admit that we are sinners. We all think things we shouldn’t think, say things we shouldn’t say, and do things we shouldn’t do. All of us.
When that happens, the only way to get right with God and with ourselves is by owning it, confessing it and making an effort to change.
Human decency begins with owning our own humanity and then trying to be better than that.