Back in 1960, pint-sized songstress Brenda Lee had a hit tune called, “I’m Sorry.” In the lyrics, she was “so sorry,” and asked whoever she was singing to, “please accept my apology.” I’m not sure about Ms. Lee, but experience has taught me that when people say they’re sorry, they don’t always mean what we think they mean. There are, we might say, “three R’s for wrongdoing.”
The first R is regret. Confronted with their wrongs, without a defense for their actions, some people react with regret. This is like the child that stares at the floor and mutters, “Sorry.” Lack of sincerity is pretty obvious. The same goes for adults. They may utilize better body language, but in essence they’re saying, “Sorry I got caught. I should have done a better job of covering my tracks.” Not a lot of genuine sorrow in this “sorry” response.
Cain, Adam and Eve’s first son, took this approach after killing his brother, Abel, in a fit of sibling jealousy. God asked, “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain shrugged his shoulders and replied, ”I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:1-9). Young people today would put it this way: “Oh, man! Busted!” Cain might have been thinking, “You can’t get away with anything around here!”
The second R is remorse. Not necessarily regretting the actions, but hating the consequences. Still not inclined to admit the seriousness of our wrongdoing, we can feel remorse because we know we’re going to the penalty box. Cain used this kind of response, too. Cursed by God to become a lifelong fugitive, without fruitful results from his labors, the first homicide perpetrator groaned, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today (God) you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth…” (Genesis 4:13-14).
Nowhere in this account do we see Cain acknowledging the gravity of his crime, or feeling the least bit mournful about taking the life of his sibling. Cain’s only concern was the severe punishment he would have to endure.
Maybe the best biblical example of remorse was Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Matters had escalated beyond what he'd anticipated. The Scriptures tell us, “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood'” (Matthew 27:3-4).
Even then, however, Judas’ “I’m sorry” was self-centered. Realizing returning the money wouldn’t stop the chain of events, the next verses states, he “threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” Overcome with remorse and unable to cope with the guilt, Judas took his own life to stop the pain.
The final R is repentance. Not only recognizing a wrong that’s been committed, but also being genuinely sorrowful for it. The root of the word, “repent,” means, as one dictionary defines it, “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life.”
Repentance is the “I’m sorry” God accepts. The apostle Paul expressed it this way: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
This form of “I’m sorry” doesn’t apply just to those who have been living apart from the Lord and need to establish a new relationship with Him – although it’s a necessary first step. Repentance applies to all of us who profess to be Christ followers, regardless of how long that has been.
The apostle John, in recording visions he had received from God, addressed this point with the church at Ephesus. Affirming the believers there, he observed, “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance….. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” However, this was classic “good news, bad news.” Because then John wrote, “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:1-5).
The Ephesians had been doing good, working hard, and persevering in faith. Then came the big “BUT.” They had “lost their first love,” as another translation puts it. Their zeal and dedication had wavered, and they had apparently fallen into spiritual compromise.
We’d be wise to consider this admonition ourselves, because walking consistently and faithfully with the Lord isn’t easy. Even if we did well yesterday, that doesn’t mean we’ll do well today – or tomorrow. As we’re warned in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”