The Importance of “I’m Sorry”

Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” A few years later, Chicago confessed, “It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.”

Those words probably stick in my mind because I can remember all the times those words have stuck in my mouth. It really is hard for me to say, “I’m sorry,” and if sorry isn’t the very hardest word for me to say, it’s certainly near the top of the list.

Why is that? I imagine it’s because I really don’t like to be wrong. Pridefully, I think an apology is more about me than the person to whom I need to apologize. Blinded by my own need to be right and justified, I lose sight of the importance of being in a right relationship. Tragically, my pride and unwillingness to apologize often cause even more injury to the very people I love most of all.

To apologize requires humility and empathy–humility to admit our capability to err and empathy to identify with the other’s hurt. To say, “I’m sorry,” is to affirm that another’s injury–whether intended or not–is more important than our own need to be above reproach. Put simply, it is to love neighbor as self.

But it is hard.

I experienced that first hand today with my own Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. In our morning session of the annual conference, we considered a resolution about our ministry together with LGBTQAI+ brothers and sisters that concluded:

THEREFORE, Be it Resolved that as the Holston Annual Conference we commit ourselves to join hands as one, united through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we work together toward God’s hope for the people of Holston and apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.

As an annual conference, it was hard for us to say, “I’m sorry.” Sorry proved to be the hardest word.

I’m not surprised. Our differences over human sexuality cause strong emotional reactions, and I’m sure that many members of our annual conference found it hard to apologize because they felt it would be admitting to wrongdoing for which they do not feel responsible. Some probably are simply unable to see that any harm has been done, so inextricably and hopelessly are their ideas of sexuality and sinfulness intertwined.

Regardless, the resolution was amended to say that we grieve, rather than apologize for the harm caused.

I can appreciate our collective emotional desire to amend the resolution. Grieving allows us to be compassionate, but it doesn’t require us to feel responsible. Grieving lets us wish that others weren’t hurting without necessarily seeing our own place in causing their pain–even accidentally.

My biggest heartbreak is that we have diminished–with the change of a word–our urgency to bring about reconciliation. We have not demanded of ourselves a resolve to renew and redouble our efforts to do no harm–even accidentally.

Today’s annual conference action has helped me to see myself more clearly, and I hope I’ve taken another step in growth and maturity toward being better able to value my relationships over my pride.

I hope I’ve learned that an apology is not fundamentally about me.  Its primary purpose is not to point out my wrongness or to imply my willful injury of another. Rather, to say “I’m sorry” is to affirm my love for the other, to say that I regret his/her hurt, and that I want our relationship to be restored even more than I want to be blameless and right.

I wish our annual conference had done that through our resolution today.

We are not of one heart and voice in the Holston Annual Conference today. Even in its amended form, I doubt that we adopt the resolution.

Nevertheless, in my heart and in the hearts of many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the resolution remains unamended. We really do “apologize for the harm caused to the body of Christ and its witness in the world.”

No matter how hard it is to say, and even if it’s the hardest word of all, we’re sorry.

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