On a sitcom, one regular character carried meekness to a fault. He bustled into the office muttering, "I'm sorry I'm late."
"You're not late."
"Well then, I'm sorry I'm early," he replied.
"You're not early, either."
"I'm sorry," he sighed.
In some cases there are good reasons for apologizing, and it's a necessary first step. But what's the second step? You can't go on being sorry forever, unless you want to wind up on a psychiatrist's couch. What's supposed to happen after repentance?
Of course, the prior question is whether we're dealing with true repentance at all; in some cases, the popular device of formal apology might only be a token paid to blunt criticism. It sounds like, "I'm sorry," but it means, "I said I was sorry." Thus at one end of the apology spectrum are those who intend to do nothing more than say the magic words. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card—sometimes literally. Men of public stature caught using funds or women in questionable ways often use this ploy.
Such apologies deliver a measure of frustration. Additionally, they can derail genuine progress. So what do you say after you say "I'm sorry"? You get on with your life and make changes. The Hebrew word for repentance, shub, means turning your life around 180 degrees. After apology comes change.
I once heard an overenthusiastic retreat leader proclaim, "Repentance means we turn around 360 degrees!" Of course, in some cases, we do; then we repent again. Even the tax collector (Luke 18:10-12), heartfelt as his repentance was, may not have walked out the door and into a pristine life. He may have only partly understood the changes God was requiring of him; he may have even failed, initially, at those he did attempt.
The shocking news of the gospel is that we can always be forgiven. God desires "I'm sorry" more than "I did it," contrition more than confession. We cart the broken heap of self into the repair shop and beg for mercy and strength, knowing this is what he loves. "A broken and a contrite heart … you will not despise" (Ps. 51:17, NIV).
Broken and contrite hearts show up in odd places, not necessarily where the faith journey is complete. Author Anne Lamott is vocally sold out to Jesus, grateful to the church that welcomed her when she was unwed, pregnant, and recovering from substance abuse. Her faith mystifies her family, friends, and even herself. She writes of looking at an image of Christ crucified: "I believe in it, and it's so nuts. How did some fabulously cerebral and black-humored cynic like myself come … to believe as much as I believe in gravity or the size of space that Jesus paid a debt he didn't owe because we had a debt we couldn't pay?"
"I'm sorry" is a good place to start, but it's only a start.
Adapted from "Do I'm Sorry Already," Frederica Mathewes-Green, Christianity Today. Click here to read the original article and for reprint information.