"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 11, 2013
Except My Apology
by Orson Scott Card

How often do we forgive people? "Until seventy times seven," Jesus told Peter.

No, wait, that's just the account from Matthew 18:22. At Luke 17:4, we get a slightly different version:

"And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him."

So maybe that seventy-times-seven forgiveness isn't unilateral and unconditional.

It might be good therapy to forgive people who haven't asked for it and don't deserve it, so that we can clear our own hearts of malice. But forgiving an evil-doer in our own hearts doesn't always translate to good policy.

"I forgive you for shooting all those people. Here's your gun, you're free to go."

The Luke account is speaking of individual, not public, decisions; and it contains the requirement that the repeat offender must "turn again to thee, saying, I repent."

This seems pretty clear cut. But Jesus never asked us to be stupid.

I think if Peter had followed up by asking, "So if he punches me in the face, says 'I repent,' punches me again, says 'I repent' again, and just keeps on punching and saying 'I repent,' I really have to forgive him? While his fist is cocked back to strike me yet again?" Jesus might have replied by raising his eyebrow and looking away in sorrow at such a deliberate misunderstanding.

Surely there is some requirement that the person who says "I repent" must at least make some attempt to be, or seem, sincere.

Because there are so many kinds of apologies.

Here's one that I think absolutely fits the situation where Jesus says we must forgive:

"I know I've done it before. I'm ashamed that I did it again, and I beg you to forgive me. You don't deserve to be treated this way, and I will never do it again."

That's the long form, but I think it's the kind of thing Jesus meant when he said that you forgive someone who says "I repent" seven times in a day.

After all, he didn't stipulate that it be the same offense seven times. For instance, it's quite possible for a husband or wife to offend each other seven times in a day, but in seven different ways. Each time, the offender might say, "I'm sorry," and mean it; and we must forgive each other.

Maybe the stupidest line ever in a movie was from Love Story: "Love means never having to say I'm sorry."

Love means saying "I'm sorry" all the time, and meaning it, and trying never to repeat the offense.

Because living with other people is hard, and the closer you are, the more important it is to be kind -- yet the easier it is to cause hurt or loss or offense.

The people we love the most can hurt us most deeply, and those who love us may similarly be damaged by us.

Sometimes our offense is accidental, though. We didn't realize it would hurt them.

Sometimes it's deliberate -- we knew it would hurt, but we were so angry or in such a hurry, and now we regret our malicious choice.

Here's something I know Jesus did not mean: He did not mean that we have a right to demand that others forgive us, just because they're Christian.

It's one of the most amusing things atheists say: You Christians are supposed to forgive everybody.

They don't, of course, hold themselves to the same standard.

The obvious answer is, "Here's a punch in the nose. Oh, I'm so sorry. I hope you'll forgive me. But whether you do or not, just like you atheists I've already forgiven myself."

No, that's only a joke. This matter of forgiveness is serious, because Jesus very clearly states that our own forgiveness by Christ depends in large part on how we forgive others.

In fact, those Christians who claim that Christ's forgiveness is by grace only, without any conditions, need to check out some of the parables again. Particularly the one about the king who forgives his steward a huge debt, and the steward turns around and refuses to forgive a much smaller debt that someone owes him.

The king then rescinds his forgiveness of the huge debt. Clearly, Jesus is saying that God's forgiveness of our sins is contingent and conditional.

Let's turn things around, though, and consider apology -- the way we choose to say "I repent" to someone whose forgiveness we desire to obtain.

People apologize in a lot of different ways -- and only a few of them are actually repentance.

For instance, I once had someone say, "I apologize. But if you don't accept my apology within seventy-two hours, then I withdraw the apology."

Calling an ultimatum an apology doesn't change the fact that it's an ultimatum. When you try to control someone else's behavior with a threat, one thing you are absolutely not doing is repenting.

So of course I ignored this utterly unrepentant ultimatum.

But by saying this, the person who gave me this ultimatum was able to say to other people, "I apologized, but he wouldn't accept my apology." So his non-apology became a device for manipulating the opinions of others and harming me yet further.

Somehow I don't think that refusing to accept that apology will send me to hell, because in no sense had this person repented of anything. The "apology" was merely a continuation of the original quarrel by other means. It was a magnification of the original offense.

That is an obvious example. But there are more subtle ones.

For instance, often in our desire to be forgiven, we say, "I'm sorry," but then follow it with a complete explanation of why the whole situation was really a complete misunderstanding and might even by the other person's fault because he should have known you didn't mean it the way he took it.

No, that's not repentance, either.

To "repent" means to "think again." It doesn't mean you must confess to terrible wickedness, but it does mean you must tell the truth and accept responsibility.

"I didn't mean to" is a legitimate thing to say -- if it's true, and if you still take responsibility for the consequences of the accidental event.

"I didn't mean to" might apply if you're apologizing for sending a ball through a closed window, and it can be part of a legitimate repentance if it is accompanied by a genuine offer of restitution.

You admit fault and responsibility, even if you deny malicious intent and therefore assert that you are unworthy of blame.

You might be blamed for not being cautious enough of your proximity to windows and your own lack of skill with the ball, but you are absolved of blame for deliberately breaking the window.

However, it's absurd to think you are really repenting when you tell your spouse, as you beg forgiveness for adultery, "It just happened."

Yeah, right, you tripped, and as you were falling on the bed, all your clothes just fell off of you and you had no idea that there was another person in that bed and ...

And that ain't repentance. If you say, "It didn't mean anything," "It just happened," "I don't know how it happened," "It was just a mistake," then you aren't repenting at all.

Those are all refusals to accept responsibility. You aren't accepting blame, and you are expecting to be relieved of the consequences.

Think of all the things that "I'm sorry" can mean.

1. Please don't punish me even though I deserve it.

2. The only way I can get out of this is if I can get you to pity me.

3. I sure wish you hadn't caught me.

4. I want you to like me no matter what I do.

5. Making this sad face and crying a little has always worked before.

6. Please don't tell on me.

It gets even more complicated when the word "but" comes right after.

"I'm sorry, but if you hadn't done this or that ..." Come on -- that's not an apology, that's an accusation.

There are legitimate explanations that can go along with "I'm sorry," mostly along the lines of, "Here's what I meant to do." And if those explanations are accompanied by an admission, as in "Nothing worked as I intended, and now I see that I am responsible for all these bad consequences, which I deeply regret," then it's a legitimate apology.

It's still repentance, even if it includes explanations designed to show that the offender had no malicious intention. Because, if true, such information is important for the offended person to know. What you're really saying is, "I truly caused this harm to you, but I am not and never was your enemy."

But I've had someone apologize to me along with an explanation of why his failure to keep his promise really worked to my benefit, surprisingly enough. It's a good thing, don't you see?

That was not repentance; to the original offense, it added a new one -- he clearly thought I was a fool. His apology was designed to manipulate me, while evading the consequences of his broken promise.

(I forgave him anyway. Eventually. And not because of that lame non-apology.)

When the apologizer begins with "I'm sorry, but" and then goes on to explain why you are completely wrong and he is completely right, it's not an apology, it's a continuation of the battle by other means.

When there is no repentance in the apology -- when the "I'm sorry" is said in circumstances that make it clear that the apologizer repents of nothing -- then are we obligated, by Christ's law, to forgive?

"I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (D&C 64:10).

Yet this seemingly blanket rule is immediately followed by "And ye ought to say in your hearts -- let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds" (11).

This is not so much forgiveness as a decision to cease open hostilities.

And the next verse after that says that when somebody doesn't repent of his sins and confess them, you bring him to a church court -- not out of any desire for vengeance, but so that you affirm the law of God (D&C 64:12-14).

Are you forgiving someone when you haul him into court?

It's all so complicated. And I can see how one person might forgive someone that I would not, and I might forgive someone that someone else might not -- and God might not condemn any of us, because only he knows what is in our hearts.

What's under our control is this: When we're the ones doing the repenting, we can make sure that our apology is real.

A real apology does not necessarily accept blame, though if the offense was intentional, then there should be no evasion of blame.

What a real apology always does is accept responsibility. No matter what I intended, I accept that I need to do something to repair the harm done to you, and to bear patiently the negative consequences to me.

A real apology does not demand or even expect forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a right, it is a grace. Even from Christ, who offers it to all of us, forgiveness is not demanded but begged for.

The point is that we don't deserve forgiveness. We accept responsibility and we will pay the price -- even or especially if that price includes public humiliation and the loss of reputation and trust.

However, if the person we offended will forgive us, and relieve us of some part of the consequence, then we are grateful, because it was a gift that did not have to be given.

If that is the way we offer our apology, with no expectation or demand, with no desire to deceive or to control or manipulate their behavior, then regardless of how the other person responds, it certainly qualifies as the "I repent" that Jesus requires in Luke 17:4.

Especially if you then follow that apology with all the restitution that is possible, and with a change in your future behavior so that you will not repeat that offense, at least, even if you then, being a frail human being, commit another.

Perhaps my interpretation is wrong, and God will mark me as an unforgiving servant because I don't consider a fake apology to require my forgiveness.

But I do know that when I make an apology, I mean it; I accept responsibility and will bear all the consequences.

And if it turns out that I'm wrong about the doctrine involved here, I'm really, really sorry.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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