Why is it so hard to ask for forgiveness? Even when we realize we’ve wronged another person, being the first to apologize is the last thing we want to do. The flare of anger, loathing, and hatred refuses to be silenced. We’d rather fixate on the sins of another, all the while repeating to ourselves, It’s not fair!
I’ve known this my whole life. Children don’t need to be taught entitlement; we’re all naturally quick to assert what belongs to us but slow to admit wrongdoing. Asking for forgiveness goes against our nature. As a child, I needed to be taught to apologize.
My parents often compelled my sister and me to apologize to each other after petty fights. I wasn’t always willing to say sorry, nor was my heart always ready to forgive. But throughout my childhood and into adolescence, my parents showed me the importance of apologies and verbal forgiveness not only by telling me to make amends but by asking for my forgiveness when they wronged me.
On one occasion, my mom reacted in anger to my sister and then apologized. My sister harbored no resentment. “It’s OK.” She was ready to move on, but my mom protested quickly, “It’s not OK.” At the time, I wondered why she had to make a big deal out of just two words. How else was my sister supposed to accept her apology?
Other times, after fights between my sister and me, my parents prompted us to apologize in specific terms. “Sorry,” I’d say, and they would cut in, “Sorry for what?” In those moments, as I fought the temptation to say something spiteful like “Sorry you feel hurt,” I wished my parents would leave it alone. Wasn’t it enough to just say sorry?
My parents weren’t enforcing a strict apology script. Rather, they sensed the tendency to hide behind imprecise, indefinite words to avoid the discomfort of confronting sin. Naming our sin feels humiliating. Yet the Bible never sweeps our sin under the rug, for all sin makes us deserving of death (Rom. 1:32). Even sins we consider commonplace―disobedience to parents (v. 30), complaining (Num. 11), impatience (21:4–6), anger (Matt. 5:21–26)―are heinous offenses against God. So-called minor sins are never minor in God’s eyes.
I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious. They apologized in specific terms: “I shouldn’t have gotten angry at you. It was wrong. I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry for being insensitive to you. I should have been gentler. Would you forgive me?” As my parents demonstrated confession without excuses or caveats, I learned that confronting sin in humble honesty is the first step toward reconciliation.
I grew up aware my sin was serious because my parents regarded their sin against me as serious.
A few years ago, my mom and I wept together. She’d said something insensitive to me about weight gain, not intending to hurt my feelings but with the result of magnifying one of my worst insecurities. I stormed off to my room in defensive anger, climbing into bed to face the wall and dry my tears. Angry and wounded, I stewed in self-pity and resentment, replaying her words, and when she came to my room to apologize, I refused to turn or respond. She left my room for a time and then returned once more.
This time, she not only apologized for what she said but also shared with me her own brokenness: she, too, had struggled with body image and the pressure to be thin; she, too, understood that the hurt I felt was deeper than a few careless words. She wept as she confessed to me the pain of her idolatry and her longing to be free. And she asked for my forgiveness.
My bitterness gave way. Her vulnerability made me turn around to face her, despite the shame I felt. As I nodded, indicating Yes, I forgive you, we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle. Our relationship was being redeemed and restored.
My mom didn’t have to share with me her vulnerabilities. She’d offered a perfectly adequate apology the first time. Yet she moved toward me with more than a desire to settle accounts or to do her part in making amends. She sought to reconcile our fractured relationship. She apologized and asked for my forgiveness not because she simply wanted absolution―a clean conscience―but because she wanted me.
Reflect the Gospel
In a similar way, the forgiveness we receive in Christ through his death is more than a legal pardon—it’s the beginning of reconciliation with God. Paul explains, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s forgiveness of our trespasses is a means to reconciliation―the restoration of a relationship. The shape of the gospel is relational.
As we embraced and cried together over our shared struggle, our relationship was being redeemed and restored.
As a child, I’d been taught I needed to apologize to resolve conflict. I carried this into my adolescence, knowing I was expected to at least say, “I’m sorry.” But when my heart didn’t align with my words―when visible tension and bitterness remained―my parents weren’t satisfied. Not because they’re legalistic sticklers for a kind of quasi penance but because they care about our relationship. They know true reconciliation only occurs when sin is recognized and forgiveness given.
In my relationship with my parents, I’ve felt most known and loved when I come to them in the wake of hurtful words or angry silence, confessing the guilt and destruction of my sin, asking, “Will you forgive me?” They always meet me with mercy, sometimes tearfully, sometimes with a long hug. In those moments, I know the gospel as Tim Keller puts it: “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope.”