Some words in the English language can be very hard to say. For example, it took a long time for my children to say ‘animal’ instead of ‘aminal’ – and sometimes they still get it wrong. Our family always has a giggle every time characters in Finding Nemo try to say ‘anemone.’ I had to practice how to say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ when I was younger so I could impress my university friends with what I’ve been told is one of the longest words in the English dictionary.
But it seems like one of the hardest words in the English language to say is ‘sorry.’
It is easy to read the word ‘sorry’, but if you think saying it is easy, try going to someone you have wronged in the past and telling them you’re sorry for what you did. We can find it difficult to do that for a range of reasons. Maybe we don’t think we have anything to apologise for because whatever happened was their fault. Maybe we are so ashamed of what has happened that we would prefer not to face it. Or maybe we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we have done. No matter what our reasons might be, saying ‘sorry’ to someone we have wronged can be very hard to do.
When James encourages us to confess our sins to each other in 5:16, he is reminding us that confession is more than turning up to church and saying ‘sorry’ to God. One reason why it’s important to have time in worship where we confess our sin to God and God speaks his word of forgiveness to us is that there is a strong tendency in our humanistic culture to think that we’re good people who don’t need to be forgiven. However, when I look at my life, I know that I fail to love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength, and that I fail to love others in the same way that God loves me through Jesus. Hearing God’s words of forgiveness helps me to remember that my identity is found in his forgiveness, not in my failures. Hearing a word of forgiveness helps us grow into the people God is making us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased.
When we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, then we will also be willing to go to the people we have wronged and tell them that we are sorry. This isn’t something that we have to do in order to get God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can have a very mechanical understanding of God’s grace where we think that we have to say we are sorry before God will forgive us. There is a much more dynamic relationship that exists between our confession and God’s forgiveness. As a church that practices infant baptism, we believe and teach that God forgiveness us even before we are able to confess our sin. Because God forgives us on account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, we are free to go to each other and confess that we have wronged each other. We can trust that God’s final word to us in Jesus will always be a word of grace and forgiveness. If God has vowed to forgive us and make us clean through the gift of his Holy Spirit, then why wouldn’t we ask to receive that forgiveness from and extend that same forgiveness to each other?
The promise God gives us through James’ words about confessing sin and forgiving each other is that we will find healing. We might think about physical healing, and there is no reason why almighty God can’t heal those he chooses to. However, healing can also take other forms. When we wrong others, our hearts can be wounded as we carry the burden of guilt and shame. This can effect our emotional and sometimes even our physical wellbeing. I have known people who had been suffering mentally and even physically because of a wrong they had committed in the past, but they hadn’t connected what they were experiencing with what they’d done. When we identified the connection, and the wrong was confessed and forgiven, then their wellbeing improved. This isn’t the case with every illness, and Jesus warned us not to assume a direct connection between illnesses or disabilities and a particular sin (John 9:1-3). However, in some cases I have seen how confessing and forgiving sin can help to heal people’s hearts and even their body.
Another way to understand the healing that James talks about is in our relationships. Sin and doing wrong damages relationships, but when we confess our wrongs to each other and forgive each other in Jesus’ name, these relationships can be healed. We can be reconciled to each other in the same way that God reconciles with us in Jesus and heals our broken relationship with him. This can be really difficult to do for a whole range of reasons, but the promise of God that we hear through the words of James is that our relationships can be healed and restored when we admit when we are wrong and ask the people we have wronged to forgive us. The healing of the relationship we have through the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus can flow through into the other damaged relationships we have in our lives so they can be healed as well. This isn’t easy to do. It requires a lot of humility, courage and faith. However, James tells us, and I have seen in my own life, that when we confess our wrongs to the people we have wronged and ask them to forgive us, not only can our relationship be healed, but we can find healing and wholeness in ourselves as well.
To whom might we need to confess our wrongs, either to restore our relationship with them or just to find healing and peace for ourselves? If there is something in your life that you’re carrying, don’t be afraid to go to someone you might have wronged, or to another sister or brother in Christ, and confess what you might have done. Find healing and freedom through the grace of God working in the words of forgiveness they speak to you. Because that’s what God wants for us – to live each day as God’s forgiven and healed children.