The most difficult phrase in the English language to pronounce: “I’m sorry.”
And for the now discredited ex-Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, the most expensive. Anything upto £3million and the end of his public life.
You will have heard that Mitchell recklessly sued the Sun over a story which claimed he called PC Rowland a “pleb” at the Downing Street gates. The judge concluded yesterday that he did – and he lost.
But as the Times puts it: “A simple apology would have done the trick. A little common courtesy would have been enough to avert this whole disgraceful episode.”
Comedian Steve Martin disagrees: “An apology? Bah! Disgusting! Cowardly! Beneath the dignity of any gentleman, however wrong he might be.”
So why is it to we find it so difficult to apologise, even to say “I was wrong; you were right?”
To apologise is to make ourselves vulnerable. We stand the risk of our apology being rejected. We appear to be losing face, we risk our reputation, we jeopardise our status. Sometimes we do anything than to offer a sincere apology.
How often have I made my erring children apologise only to see that apology spat out. “I’m apologising but only because I have to.”
The best apology in the Bible is right in the middle, the one offered by Job at the conclusion of his 40 chapter rant against God. In fact, nearly the whole book is him lambasting God for his failure to do his job properly.
And so as this Old Testament book draws to a conclusion Job submits to God: “ I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head.
“I’m sorry—forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise! I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumour.” (42:6)
Essentially Job admits his standing before God – he is simply flesh and blood before his Creator. He has no bargaining position; he can’t use his apparent holiness as a lever to get his own way. His true status is best summarised by the words “I’m sorry.”
He has nothing else to offer except this apology – and the wonder of the Gospel is that is all that God asks of us
In fact, this is how we begin our Christian lives at the foot of the cross – to say to God “I’m sorry – please forgive me. Please forgive me for trying to live my life for myself and to keep you out, away at a safe distance.”
I recall an evangelist friend of mine, Peter Partington, telling me that how men in particular found it difficult to ask God for his forgiveness because this meant a loss of status. To say it like that sounds ridiculous, what status could we ever achieve before God. But we do.
They would often tell him, with a measure of some pride: “Well, I didn’t give in without a fight.” Amazing how we hold on to status, even when we have let go.
And yet the ability to apologise – and the willingness to forgive – is at the heart of the Christian life. But as we all know, to ask for forgiveness can be as difficult as is it to forgive. The two, of course, go together. And of course, we can be badly damaged if as children we had to fight to win our parent’s begrudging forgiveness.
For if there is a phrase as difficult as “I’m sorry”, then it has to be “No problem, don’t mention it.”
And we learn all this, above all in the family of the church, where plebs and politicians come together as beloved children of God. And no legal fees.
So the apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesians “Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” (4:31)