Relationships require forgiveness if they are going to flourish. Inevitably we are going to wrong one another, and we need skill to know how to reconcile. One way to grow this skill is to recognize the difference between: (1) apologies for accidents; and (2) requests for forgiveness for wrongs.

Note: We tend to say, “I’m sorry” for both accidents and wrongs. That’s totally appropriate. “I’m sorry” means that I have sorrow. I’m sad that something happened.

Apologies are needed for accidents. If I’m late because I blew a tire, I should say, “I’m sorry I’m late. I blew a tire on the way here. I apologize for delaying the meeting.”

Forgiveness is needed for wrongs. If I’m late because I’m purposefully or vengefully trying to express my contempt for you or your meeting–this will require more than an apology to reconcile. This requires forgiveness. I should say, “I’m sorry I was late. I did it on purpose because I was angry. It was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Seeking forgiveness for an accident potentially freights the interaction with false blame and false guilt. Name the accident. Express sorrow. And if you’re on the receiving end, you must not wrong the person by accusing them of a sin they did not commit. Accept their apology. Don’t demand they ask for forgiveness.

Minimizing a wrong by merely saying, “I apologize.” Or “I”m sorry,” doesn’t go far enough. And a habit of this half-way patch-up may eventually lead to serious frustration, because we are very intuitive about genuine repentance versus saving face. Name the wrong and say, “Please forgive me.”

“There is a difference between an apology and asking for forgiveness. An apology is appropriate when you have done something by accident. For example, if I accidentally spill a cup of hot coffee on you, I should say, ‘I’m very sorry I did that.’ I should also do whatever I can to help you get cleaned up. But suppose I purposefully threw coffee on you because I was irritated? That is not an accident. That is a sin. I may apologize and say I am sorry, but I also need to name the sin, confess that it was wrong, and ask for forgiveness.”

Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, 101.