Somewhere back there in your sandbox days, you did something wrong that was clearly a violation of sandbox rules. Perhaps you pushed your friend down so you could ride the big wheel. You might have buried his G.I. Joe and pretended you didn’t know where he was. Or perhaps you stripped Barbie naked and put her clothes on your kitten. You did something back there in your childhood world that was offensive. It crossed the line and it likely caused tears.
With your friend crying because he or she knew an adult would come eventually to bring justice to Sandbox Land, you began to put together a story that would help you in your defense. You knew there was going to be a quick trial with swift justice. Some people are good storytellers today because they got lots of practice in the sandbox.
As the story unfolded between uncontrollable sobs, not by you but by your friend, the adult eventually got around to saying what every child has heard an adult say, “O.K., well tell, her you are sorry.”
This is such a confusing time for children. They are smart enough to realize they are supposed to feel shame for their actions and some empathy for the person they have hurt, and sometimes they do, I suppose, but we are smart enough to look at their little faces and know when they are and when they aren’t. Still somehow, we think if we can just get them to say the words, “I’m sorry,” we’ve succeeded as supervising adults.
In making a child say, “I’m sorry,” we want that child to feel a sense of remorse for what she or he did and make some effort at building a better friendship. So when that pretty little face doesn’t say “I’m sorry,” we begin with threats of time out, no T.V., can’t play here any more, until we hit the right one.
Eventually, we get the child to say those two magical words and we feel victorious, as if we’ve restored relations between the Arabs and the Jews.
But have you ever noticed when a child is forced to say those words, how they are said? “I’m sorry!” with anger, or “I’mmm sorrryyy,” with a silly face. The child is making a fool out of us. The child is saying to us, “You might make me say this, but you can’t make me feel it.”
As an adult, our intentions are to teach children to apologize, but are we succeeding by forcing them to say something they don’t really mean?
Since all of you have been there, I guess you are waiting for the Great Wise One to tell you what to do instead.
Well, I’m not the Great Wise One, but I like the suggestion of one person I read who said that we must teach children their behavior isn’t acceptable but then give them enough space to come to some decision about what they will do about the relationship with their friend. How do we accomplish that?
If we have modeled the act of apology before our children, they will know how to respond in mending their young friendships.
A simple question like, “What can you do to let your friend know that you are not going to dress her cat with her doll clothes any more? That upsets her. If you want to play, you can’t do that any more.”
You see, we’ve set boundaries of what acceptable behavior is and we’ve given the child freedom to choose how to mend the relationship.
In a rush to fix things for our children, we often short circuit what can come naturally if we have some patience and give our children some time to think through issues for themselves.
Middle schoolers, teenagers, and adults, will say “I’m sorry” and really meaning it more often when apologies are modeled for us as children and when we are given enough space to make them without their being forced upon us.
Sandbox theology teaches that God cares about how we treat others from the time we are old enough to understand that our actions really do affect other people. When our actions have harmed or wounded someone else in any way, it is our responsibility as the significant adults to help children take ownership for the part they have played in wounding others.
So we must set boundaries. Children must learn that hurting others has consequences. Unless children learn this they will grow up in a selfish world.
Now, just for a moment, imagine yourself back in the sandbox. You’ve just wounded your friend in some way and he or she is crying. In comes the adult to find out what has happened. You are questioned, of course. The adult asks, “Why is your friend crying?”
There in the sandbox, you are faced with the same dilemma that you will be faced with all throughout life. Will you admit the wrong you have done?
Some people refuse to admit being wrong in any way because it is seen as a sign of weakness. However, it takes a strong person to admit being wrong.
Weak people put up a great front of superiority and are afraid of losing control, so they can’t be wrong about anything. They have to appear strong to keep from exposing their insecurities.
A gopher snake isn’t poisonous but it will mimic a rattlesnake. It will coil up, wave its tail and create a rattle sound, and it will strike like a rattlesnake, but it’s not a snake to fear like a poisonous snake. I know. Most of us are afraid of any snake. But the point is that some people, like this snake, put up a great front of superiority.
The stronger person is one who will admit to his or her mistakes. However, this does come with the risk of humiliation, rejection, or retaliation of those he or she may have offended. So making an apology takes some courage.
There is no guarantee that even a heartfelt apology will be well received. You might be rejected. The effort to reach out to the one you have offended might be rebuffed with a door in your face, the click of a phone, or a few curse words sent your way.
However, without an apology, the relationship will not mend. The offense may never be forgiven. The strain on the relationship will continue. You will have to live with the shame of your offense.
Now I know I preached from Luke 19 just a couple of weeks ago. I have not forgotten even if some of you have, but the Bible can give up multiple lessons on the same text. So, here is another one from Zacchaeus.
Jesus was visiting the oasis village of Jericho. He was a celebrity by the time he came to this desert community. While Jericho was a bit remote, no area escaped the taxation of the Romans. They had their man there who took more than the Romans’ share of the people’s money and it was more than enough to make Zacchaeus wealthy and hated. It’s fair to say that Zacchaeus didn’t have a friend in town unless he’d bought one.
When Jesus came into town, he didn’t choose one of the elders, a religious person, or any outstanding member of the city to spend time with. Jesus found Zacchaeus looking down from the perch of a sycamore tree and invited himself to his house for lunch. The opinion of Jesus in the city went south.
However, the opinion of him might have changed when Zacchaeus made his apology. Perhaps you remember it.
He didn’t just say, “I’m sorry!” No, no. His apology had legs.
He said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Words have a lot of power. Sometimes “I’m sorry,” is enough to heal a wound and move a relationship forward. Sometimes the offense is too great, the divide is too wide, and we shouldn’t be surprised if two words don’t repair all the hurt that’s been done. It might be a start.
For Zacchaeus, he knew the people needed to be shown he was sorry and not just told and so he gave away half of what he had and promised all he’d defrauded to pay back four times the amount.
We must be prepared that even with an apology the relationship with others might never be repaired. Sometimes people never trust again and the relationship is never renewed. However, with an apology, at least there is hope that it can occur. Without it, it will almost surely die.
With Zachaeus’ apology and his act of restitution, he was also saying something important about himself. He was saying that he was a changed individual. People all over Jericho knew that Zacchaeus was a changed man because he’d spent time with Jesus.
We are not always good with words, but people seem to know when our apologies are sincere and heartfelt and when they are self-serving. Before you apologize, make sure you have their best interest at heart and that God has forgiven you and that you are humbly seeking what is best for them.
If forgiveness comes, it is theirs to grant. You are not entitled to it. If the person doesn’t want a relationship and isn’t forgiving, then commit to pray for the person and accept that we cannot always repair the damage our sin has caused, even with an apology.
But take solace in this: we worship a loving God, whose arms are open and ready to receive us when we admit our wrongs to Him.
The Psalmist came to God with his sincerest words of remorse: “For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever with me. I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin” Psalm 38:17-18.
Jesus’ disciple wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” 1 John 1:9 (NIV).
Even while dying on the cross, Jesus accepted the feeble attempt of a dying thief to say he was sorry for the way his life had turned out. Jesus knew his heart. He knew he was remorseful. He believed he was sincere. He promised the thief that he would be with him that day in paradise.
Most of us were taught in the sandbox years that it’s important to apologize when we wrong others so that the relationship can be restored. But it must be heartfelt or it’s not real; it’s of no value. You may have never thought about it like this, but our salvation is tied to that simple idea.
When it comes to our relationship with God, God says that all of us must come to Him like a child and say, “I’m sorry.” It can’t be anything forced. It has to be real and sincere, from our hearts.
Have you humbled yourself as the Psalmist did? Have you ever come to God and said, “I am sorry I have gone my own way”? Like Zacchaeus, have you said to God, “I want my life to change from this point forward”? I’m confessing my sins and I’m willing to follow you as you require”?
Many Christian journeys have begun with our apologies to God. They continue with our commitment to God as we live out the life God wants us to live. Our lives continue beyond this one with God’s promise of eternal life being fulfilled in us.
Just as in the sandbox, no one can really force this to happen. Only you can genuinely say to God, “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps you’d like to say that in a prayer like this.
God, I don’t consider myself a bad person, but I’ve done things I’m not happy about. There are things I’ve said and done that I’d be extremely embarrassed if others ever found out about. There are people that I have wounded. There are people that have wounded me and because of that I don’t care much about them any more. I don’t like how this makes me feel inside.
I don’t trust many people. Trust in You isn’t easy either. There’s so much I don’t understand. But I feel your Spirit speaking to me, and that is real enough to me to say to you that I am sorry for the things I have done wrong. In my mind right now I’m thinking of some of them specifically. I claim your promise that you will forgive me of them.
Help me say “I’m sorry” to any in my life that I have wronged, but more importantly, to show them by my renewed life that I have been with You and I’m trying to change. Help them and others to see the difference in my life as I try to live a life as your disciple. Amen.