The Language of Forgiveness

I’ve spent some time in East Africa where they speak Swahili. Learning Swahili is often a bit amusing.  The Swahili word for “I’m sorry” is “pole” (pronounced po-lay). Its literal translation is “I am distressed by your misfortune.” Pole applies to everything from getting chalk dust on your clothes, to tripping, dropping an item or sneezing. The initiator is expressing his/her regret or sorrow at another’s burden (which usually is nothing worse than having to walk from one place to another).

When I say “I’m sorry” in English, what do I mean?  The root of “sorry” is in the old English/old Saxon word sarig which means “distressed, grieved.” “I’m sorry” means I feel bad about how I feel, whether that feeling is physical or mental in nature. It’s about my feelings towards my situation. I’m sorry I broke that mug. I’m sorry you hurt your foot. I’m sorry I was rude to you. In every case, the focus is on how I feel about the situation.

The thing is this: when I say “I’m sorry” does it mean “forgive me?” When I tell you “I’m sorry I lied about you to our friend,” I’m hoping you’ll say “It’s ok, I forgive you.” But I don’t think that, in fact, I am saying “forgive me.” I think I’m implying you must forgive me without me ever actually asking for forgiveness. When I say “I’m sorry,” I don’t take responsibility nor ask for forgiveness. Why do I say this? It is ever so difficult to say: “I want to ask you to forgive me for lying about you to our friend.”  You try it out.  Say “I’m sorry for breaking your favorite coffee mug.” Now say “forgive me for breaking your coffee mug.” It’s much harder to say “forgive me” isn’t it? When we say “forgive me,” it not only admits something I’ve recognized as wrong but it also means that I’m asking you, the party harmed, to make a decision on my behalf. I’m imposing my desire to be forgiven on you in a way that “I’m sorry” simply does not. It demands a choice on your behalf.

In the prayer (known as the Lord’s Prayer) in Luke 11, we don’t pray “I’m sorry for my debts” but rather “forgive us our debts as we also have been forgive.” We are asking God for action, not telling Him how we feel. It is good to remind us of this: action speaks louder than words. And God has acted, hasn’t He! Jesus, who taught His disciples how to pray in the “Lord’s Prayer,” went on to forgive all our debts and sins on the cross. As His followers, He asks us to be like Him and forgive others. Being forgiven and forgiving others is powerful stuff.  

So, what is forgiveness?

For one thing, forgiveness isn’t merely forgetting. We don’t have to forget what someone has done to us to forgive them. Nor do we have to trust them again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that our confidence meter goes back to 100%. That’s going to take time and testing. Can the person that we have forgiven also regain our trust? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Because forgiveness isn’t about the other person, we can still forgive. It isn’t about their actions; it’s about my heart.

From personal experience, I can tell you that I can’t expect my heart to feel like I’ve forgiven someone right away. When someone has hurt me, that hurt is very real. Despite the pain inside, making a choice to forgive is what Jesus wants from me. Usually, I need to let Jesus change my heart and let Him figure out how to bring my feelings into alignment with my decision. For Him to do work in my heart this way, I need to give up my right to get even. I need to trust that Jesus is the only one who can actually judge any situation or any person. It’s wise that I put this issue into His hands. I no longer need to concentrate my thoughts on the harm, not allow my tongue to run away in gossiping about it. Instead, I need to bring myself daily to Jesus through prayer (and reading the Bible) so that He can help me address the issues of my heart. I’ve found that often God needs time to work out His purposes in my life and this begins with my decision to spend time with Him.

Perhaps add this sentiment to your prayer today: “Jesus, I give you permission to enter the mess of my heart. I want to be more like you and less like me in every situation, and I need your help. Help me find any unforgiveness inside and then help me to choose to forgive others as you’ve forgiven me.  Your glory is so much more important than anything else. In your name, Jesus, I pray.”