Sorry Not Sorry

May 19, 2023 by Colleen C Orchanian

I got the idea for this post from my son, Tommy. We were at Mass and the Gospel for the day was about the thief on the cross who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Tommy commented, "What if the thief was just hedging his bets. He didn’t know for sure if Jesus was the King of the Jews but figured - just in case – he would ask for help."

That’s kind of like Pascal’s Wager: Pascal proposed that you should bet, or wager, on God because of what’s at stake: You have lots to gain and not much to lose.

So… that conversation got me thinking about how sincerely we repent of our sins and what drives that repentance or sorrow.

One type of sorry is that of a child who hits his sister and Mom tells him to apologize. He says, Sorry! Without much sincerity. There is no true sorrow. This is driven by obligation. Mom says to do it so you do it. Any parent knows that sometimes we accept a less than sincere apology. I call that the "sorry not sorry" response. We often hear that from famous people who have said something stupid and apologize, but you know by the words they use that they aren’t really sorry at all. They are only doing it to meet some kind of obligation.

Another type of sorry is the one we read about in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He find himself alone, hungry, and destitute after squandering his inheritance and decides to go back home and tell his father he’s sorry because he figures he’s better off as a slave to his father than starving on a pig farm. I call this a sorry based on need. The parable doesn’t indicate that he desired anything more than taking care of his own personal needs – his hunger. Sometimes we are sorry because we need something from the other person, not because we have truly repented of whatever offense we gave.

What about this type of sorry – sorry for the consequences. An unfaithful spouse may be sorry they got caught. A woman who has an abortion may be sorry because that procedure resulted in infertility. A student who cheats on a test is sorry they failed when they got caught. In each case, the sorry isn’t about the specific act that was wrong, but the consequences of that act.

There is another type of sorry – one based on pride. I commit a sin and get caught and am embarrassed that people know. They will think less of me. That’s my pride driving the sorrow.

So I have had all kinds of sorry – apologizing because it’s the right thing to do, apologizing because the consequences of my words or actions caused me some trouble, apologizing because I needed something, apologizing out of wounded pride. None of those is good enough.

What is the ultimate reason to be sorry for my sins? It is because they offend God. They are sins against God first. Even the Prodigal Son acknowledges that when he tells his father, I have sinned against God and against you. He says God first.

I have thought about this topic of sorrow for sins for a while. And I struggle with it because I have read the writings of great saints who weep at their own failings, even when those are failings that most of us would not even be worried about. I fear that I don’t have true sorrow or perfect contrition. And I want that. I want to feel first that my sin is an offense against God and I want my heart to break because I have done something to offend him. When I don't have those feelings, I worry that my sorrow isn’t good enough for God’s mercy.

The thing is, I can’t make myself feel something that I don’t feel. I guess I could pretend, but since God knows my heart, who would I be fooling?

The thief on the cross may have been hedging his bets. He may not have been certain that Jesus was the Messiah, the King of Israel. But he asked for help anyway. He asked to be remembered when Jesus came into His Kingdom. And how did Jesus respond: Today you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus knew the heart of the thief because He knows everything. And He promised heaven to the criminal who died on the cross beside Him. Jesus accepts whatever sorrow we have to offer because His mercy makes up for our imperfect sorrow.

Here’s another story that helps reinforce that point. Remember that Peter denied Jesus three times the night He was arrested. And this was just after Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing. He would die first. In John 21:15-17, after the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times: Do you love me? The first two times Jesus uses the word Agape, which is perfect love. Peter responds, you know I love you, and Peter uses the word Phileo, which is a less perfect form of love. The third time Jesus asks Peter, Do you Phileo me, not do you Agape me. He accepts Peter’s imperfect love. Agape is the ideal, but Peter doesn’t have that – yet. Jesus accepts what Peter can give.

Where else do we see that God accepts what we can give? It’s in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Surely the father realizes the heart of the son, but it doesn’t matter. His son was lost and now is found and he wants to celebrate. He accepts the imperfect sorrow of his son.

I think that is what God was trying to teach me through my conversation with Tommy and these passages from Scripture. He was reassuring me that my imperfect sorrow is acceptable. He is God and He can make up for whatever is missing in my heart. That’s not to say that I don’t pray for perfect sorrow or perfect contrition. I do. I pray that my heart breaks for my sins because they offend God. And I will continue to pray for that. But in the meantime, I will come to God with my imperfect sorrow. The obligatory sorry, the sorry based on my needs, my prideful sorry, and my sorry for the consequences. God knows what I am capable of and accepts me in my weakness. That is an awesome God!

With that food for thought, here are some questions to take to prayer:

  • What motivation tends to drive your sorrow? Is it obligation, need, consequences, pride, something else?
  • Do you doubt God’s mercy because of your imperfect sorrow? If so, read and meditate on the scripture passages from this blog: the Prodigal son, Peter’s confession of love, and the thief on the cross. Let God speak to you through these passages.