Q: I sometimes get overwhelmed by the burden I place on the people around me.  Even when people help me, I feel so guilty that I can’t stop apologizing.  Lately, my friends and family have told me that I apologize too much.  But isn’t that a good thing?

A: First of all, thank you for writing.  Second of all, thank you’s are what you need more of.

I can understand your predicament: you feel like you place too many demands on the people around you and therefore feel like you need to even apologize for existing!  But you don’t.  It is good that you exist.  And if there are people who are there to help you, then you have something to be grateful for.

But let’s be clear: “I’m sorry” is good.  It is also necessary.  And then it has to stop.

When we apologize, we are acknowledging the price someone else has paid for our error or weakness.  We are taking responsibility for what we have “cost” the other person.  I am sure that we are all familiar with the “politician apology” which is a way to get out of accepting any personal blame and placing the burden on the other (“I am sorry that my actions were perceived as hurtful by you”).  But when we genuinely apologize, we are recognizing the fact that we have done a real wrong and are asking for real forgiveness.

A person could use “Thank you’s” to manipulate the other.  If it is not preceded by some kind of acknowledgment that I’ve done something wrong, I could use it to get out of saying I am sorry.  But a person could also use apologies in a manipulative way as well.

But there are some people who can begin to twist this into something else.  Apologizing can be a way in which they can beat themselves up.  And it thereby stunts the relationship.

…when we genuinely apologize, we are recognizing the fact that we have done a real wrong and are asking for real forgiveness.

What originally began as a way to accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness can be transformed into a weapon with which a person holds themselves (and others) hostage.  Here is what I mean.  Rather than asking for forgiveness and accepting the forgiveness offered, the person who continues to apologize does so with two consequences.  First, they negate the forgiveness that was offered.  In continuing to apologize, the “apologizer” forces the other person to continually give them something.  It might be renewed forgiveness.  It might be reassurance that they are okay.  It might be their attention.  Regardless, it ignores the fact that pardon has already been given.

When we apologize, we are asking the offended party to give us something in addition to what our transgression cost them in the first place.  We are asking them to offer forgiveness.  The best way we can live forgiven is to live gratitude.

There are some people who seem to think that their job is to beat themselves up and constantly feel sorry for something that they have done.  That has to stop.  Beating one’s self up doesn’t help anyone.  It doesn’t help the person getting beaten up and it doesn’t help the one who has offered forgiveness.  It never glorifies God.

You might say that there are three major “moves” in forgiveness: it is asked for, it is offered, it is accepted.  The person who finds themselves ceaselessly apologizing may need to pay attention to this last “move”.  Without it, the relationship becomes “frozen in time”.  There is no forward motion because the person is forcing everyone to live in the past.  Even though forgiveness has been offered, there has been no acceptance and growth.  The relationship will be stunted.

Why would anyone do this?  It isn’t because you are bad.  Giving in to the constant feelings of guilt creates drama in a person.  There is a tension that gets built up and it “feels” like they are doing something.  But they aren’t.  They are merely creating an emotion within themselves.  Unless this emotion leads to positive action (like an apology and firm purpose of amendment), it is useless.  All it does is feed negative self-talk and self-accusing thoughts.  (It does feed drama as well, though.  And this is why many people do it.)

Rather than repeatedly apologize for the same thing, why not take positive action?  Why not acknowledge the good that the other person has done in forgiving you?  Why not feed gratitude?  Rather than continually marking your conversation with “I’m sorry” (which forces others to continue to give you their forgiveness), why not give them something?  Why not give them your thanks?

I know a number of Christians like this.  They are sorry for their sins.  They have asked the Lord for forgiveness.  And the God who is Mercy has forgiven them.  But these “I’m sorry’s” seem to have become the entire content of their conversations with God.  Whenever they approach Him, they feel the need to bring up past failures and sins and re-apologize for them.  I understand why.  It creates tension; it creates drama.  It gives you something to do.

Why not choose to be thankful instead?  If you still feel guilty over sins that have been confessed and forgiven, why not turn that into thanks?  God never gets tired of us, so you can tell Him anything.  But why not honor the forgiveness He has given you by saying “thank you” rather than an endless stream of “I’m sorry’s”?