I found myself yelling at the TV screen several times yesterday as I watched the film The Purge. I always yell at characters, particularly in horror/suspense films, who don’t follow common sense and walk right into the hands of their killer. I’ve shouted such things as, “You idiot! Don’t go down there without a light!” “Why would you not check behind the door when you entered that room?” “I don’t feel sorry for you. You walked right into that one.” That last line in particular is the one I think (and sometimes yell out loud) most often. Thus it came as a great surprise (and, at the same time, great relief) when I realized this past week one way in which I can be just as foolish as a character in a horror film. If my soul could be on display like a film for the whole world to watch, viewers everywhere would be yelling at me, “You idiot! How do you keep walking into the same simple trap over and over again?” The trap I’ve been so frequently walking into is that, for too long now, I’ve been telling God, “I’m sorry.”
When To Be Sorry
Before you accuse me of falling into moral relativism, denying the gravity of sin, or advocating the false image of a God who just lets us do whatever we want, let me explain. There are circumstances in which we do need to say “I’m sorry” to God. Most folks who learned the Act of Contrition growing up know that one version of the prayer begins: “My God, I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee…” Such a prayer is meant to be uttered at the conclusion of the sacrament of reconciliation/confession. This sacrament exists in order to reconcile us with God after we sever our relationship with him, with our neighbor, and with our selves through our mortal sins.
It’s important to remember that the three conditions constituting a mortal sin are: 1. The object chosen being one of grave matter 2. Committed with full knowledge and 3. Committed with deliberate consent (CCC, 1857). Another way of wording that is if by our free choice we deliberately choose to do (or not do) something we know full well involves grave matter and goes against our conscience, we can be assured that we have offended God by essentially saying, “I know what you want me to do, but I don’t care. I’m deliberately going to go against your desire for me.” In such instances, as has been mentioned, we sever our relationship with God, our neighbor, and our selves. When we come to see how we’ve caused such damage by means of our sins, we should naturally desire to approach God with a contrite heart, sorry for having offended him “who art all good and deserving of all my love.”
When Not To Be Sorry
The trap I’ve been walking into is not that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” to God whenever I realize the damage I cause through my mortal sins: the trap I’ve been walking into is that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” to God whenever I encounter my non-sinful imperfections. I hadn’t realized until just recently how often I’ve been apologizing to God for things that aren’t sinful: “Lord, I’m sorry I’m so tired in prayer today.” “Lord, I’m sorry I keep looking around the chapel instead of at you in the tabernacle.” “Lord, I’m sorry my mind keeps wandering to things I need to get done today.” None of these things are sinful and none of them merit an apology.
Before you brush this off as a minor or unimportant distinction, think again. Imagine the child you care for the most in this world: a child you’d do anything for and love unconditionally. Imagine if they came to visit you every day just to talk with you and be with you and how delighted you’d be even if it were only for a few minutes. Now imagine if every day the child came to visit, he kept apologizing for things that didn’t merit an apology: “I’m sorry I’m a little sleepy today.” “I’m sorry I keep getting distracted by my toys and the TV screen.” “I’m sorry if I smell a little funny today.” You may think nothing of these statements at first and instead reassure him, “You’re fine! I’m just happy I get to be with you.” Yet what if a majority of the things that child said during his daily visits began “I’m sorry”? Wouldn’t you start to be concerned? Would that child sound free to you? The same goes for us in our relationship with God. We are his children and he knows how childish and distracted we can be and how imperfect we are. Yet he does not expect nor does he desire for us to apologize in those instances where we encounter our non-sinful imperfections.
Why It Matters
Once again, this is more than a minor distinction in word-choice. On the contrary, it is a tactic devised by Satan himself in the spiritual warfare for our hearts. One of Satan’s nicknames in Scripture is “the Accuser” (Rev. 12:10). Another nickname is Lucifer which literally means “light-bearer.” Both nicknames come together in these moments when he tries to get us to apologize to God when no apology is necessary. As an Accuser, he tries to accuse us of having done something worthy of apology. As a light-bearer, he twists the truth and tries to convince us that apologizing is what God would want. Thus, he may speak to our hearts in the following way: “You’re in the presence of Almighty God and you’re falling asleep and your mind is wandering? What’s your problem? Is he not enough for you? Is this how he deserves to be treated? Apologize!” Listening to such reasoning can make it seem as though our apology is fitting repentance. However, in truth, we are actually condemning ourselves for something that doesn’t merit an apology. In the words of a wise priest, “Self-condemnation is recrimination masquerading as repentance.”
Be especially mindful of this trap if you are prone to struggling with self-condemnation and/or perfectionism. Such struggles can make it easier to buy into the lies that what we’re doing (or not doing) merits an apology and that such an apology will please God. In reality (and this is the main reason why such an attentiveness matters) it can distort our image of God and ourselves over time: God soon becomes a wrathful Father who is constantly disappointed in us, whose expectations we can never meet and whose love we can never accept without feeling a sense of guilt.
So the next time you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” to God, reflect for a moment on what you’re apologizing for. We must, with contrite hearts, say the words “I’m sorry” when we realize how our sins have offended God and severed our relationship with him, our neighbor, and our selves. These sins involve the three conditions of grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. If what we’re saying sorry for is not for something that met these three conditions, we can add something along the lines of, “Actually, no: I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry that my mind just wandered to things I need to get done today. I didn’t deliberately choose to ignore you or know full well what I was doing. However, now that I’ve recognized that my mind was wandering, I come to you with the desire to be more attentive to how you’re with me in this present moment.” It seems like a minor shift in thinking and word-choice, but it makes all the difference in the world. We need to learn when and when not to say “God, I’m sorry” as we, his children, walk more and more in his freedom safe from the enslaving mindset of perfectionism and self-condemnation.