Forgiveness Deferred

Maybe it’s the turn into autumn, but we’ve found ourselves shifting into a more serious mode lately. This week’s post builds on the previous’ philobservations about home, guesting, and being a guest (and the social gaffes which inevitably result), by musing on the import not of saying “I’m sorry,” but of saying some version of “you’re forgiven.”


Two words could be reintroduced into our daily exchanges.


“Apology accepted.”


We seem to say sorry to people night and day. Yet, when you are in the wrong, and you know it and you apologize directly, there is very rarely a verbal acknowledgement that the apology has been accepted. Thus, the moment of accepting forgiveness is deferred. Without this opportunity to receive forgiveness from the victims of whatever misdeed we committed –from forgetting to close a window to rear-ending a Porsche; from neglecting to notice you’re in someone’s way to accidentally kissing another person at a party; from misjudging your deep-throat capabilities to stepping in wet cement. — whether social gaffe or felony, the wrong-doer remains stuck in that position of wrong action.

Rather like stepping in wet cement, we need a generous hand to lift us free.

Whatever the misdeed, the moment the wrong-doer decides to apologize (and the longer the apology takes, the more the relationship weakens), a significant and necessary exchange occurs. Contrition for Absolution. Even when Martin Luther broke out of the Confessional, the assumption was not that misdeeds need no forgiveness; rather, that sins committed against god need forgiveness only from god, not some dude in a robe behind a screen. Luther’s conception of sin and forgiveness was that only the being who you’ve sinned against has the ability to offer forgiveness. If you haven’t sinned against that dude in the robe, his absolution is meaningless. You’re still stuck in that wet cement. Another of Luther’s revelatory ideas about sin and forgiveness was that no amount of bead-counting and recitation, let alone a few choice bits of gold dropped in the church coffers, can wiggle you out of your sticky situation. Luther recognized that the material of the exchange is not material; it’s not tangible.

The exchange of apology and forgiveness is much more precious than the concrete things we can hold: it is composed of respect and self-esteem.

Yet we frequently forget that this is an exchange. We focus on the wrong-doer’s obligation to offer us contrition. And depending on the nature of the individual, we state that seeking absolution is either “more than just saying the words” or “you need to say the words”. The language of apology is insufficient without action, and acts of contrition are insufficient without language: the verbal acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

But this holds true for the wronged as well. If we’re standing beside that person in the wet cement, neither of us can move forward until the helping hand is offered, and the words of forgiveness spoken. We must show and tell forgiveness. It is in the Lord’s Prayer. It is in the Truth and Reconciliation approach implemented after apartheid and genocides. It is in the marvellously haunting play by Ariel Dorfman, (made into an equally haunting film), Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play centres on a forced confession. None of the three characters: Paulina, her husband Gerardo, and the man she is convinced was her rapist while she was held captive, are freed until Roberto acknowledges his sin. Tellingly, the play ends with the audience unsure of whether or not Roberto was actually Paulina’s rapist, despite the extracted confession. One might argue that this uncertainty is, in part, the result of Paulina’s refusal to fully accept Roberto’s contrition. She needs to hear the words “I’m sorry.” But she also needs to speak the words “Apology accepted.”

When you apologize and do not hear the words “apology accepted”, there is the feeling that a debt is still owed.


“I owe him an apology.”

“He owes me an apology.”

“I don’t owe you any apology.”


We monetize wrongdoing.


“You’ve made me pay for it.”

“I’ll make you pay.”


Surely equating currency and exchange with errors, apologies, and forgiveness lexically leads our brains into associating misdeeds and mistakes with theft. And some do amount to theft, either literally or figuratively.

Yet all too often a party is repeatedly made to apologize for a wrong-doing that is, in fact, not a wrongdoing; merely a manipulated idea of misbehaviour that has been established in the accuser’s mind as a result of too-high-expectations of others and/or intolerance. Possibly, the accused could also hold a warped vision of self in which all is and always will be their fault. This type of personality has suffered greatly and assumes that they are always in the wrong. “In the wrong”– as if it’s a place you can be…Again, we try to physicalize and monetize the intangible. The result being neither party can move forward. They are both stuck: one in the cement, the other unable to look away.

It is only when forgiveness is granted that both parties are able to shift focus and move forward, whether together or apart.  Contrition and Absolution…Luther recognized that these are not things we can hold in our hands. We can only pass them on to others through our words and actions.

There’s a reason why portraits of Martin Luther depict a man experiencing a combination of jaded exhaustion and barely-restrained defeat. It’s hard to get people to apologize to you; and it’s even harder to get people to accept your apologies. If anyone ever “owed” someone a massive debt of apology, it’s the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was only one of a countless number of people still waiting to hear their “I’m sorry”. Yet I suspect Luther wasn’t sitting around, waiting for that debt to be repaid. I think he realized he had better things to do with his time than hang around a massive institution mired in wet cement.

And I also think that, if the Catholic church were to reach out a hand and say, “I’m sorry,” Luther would  have replied by extending his own and saying: “Apology accepted.”

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