6 min read

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

We all find ways of not simply saying sorry. Not just former prime ministers. Graham Tomlin unpacks why it’s getting harder to say sorry in our culture.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A politican stands holding a bible, in front of a committee room table. Behind him an audience waits expectantly
Boris Johnson prepares to give evidence to the House of Commons Privileges Committee.

Why is it so hard to say you’re sorry? Over recent weeks we have watched the story unfold of Boris Johnson and the Downing Street parties, his disdain towards the Privileges Committee report suggesting he misled parliament, and his resignation as an MP, insisting he was the victim of a witch-hunt rather than saying he had made a mistake and owning up.

And it’s not just Conservative Prime Ministers. Tony Blair has never quite come clean to say it was a mistake to lead the UK into war against Saddam Hussain on the basis of faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

Church leaders don’t escape either. Too often in the past, abusers have been shielded and moved on, and when the avoidance is revealed, ways have been found to avoid simply saying sorry. And then we all know the kind of apology that goes “I’m sorry you feel that way” which of course is not an apology at all. 

Saying sorry has always been difficult, but our culture seems to make it even harder. We may not conduct literal witch hunts any more, but we do metaphorical ones.

Confession is difficult. Try it sometime. Next time you make a mistake, resolve to come clean before your friends, your spouse, your partner, your team at work. Confess your sins. Not straightforward, is it? If you find it as hard as I do, then join the club.  

Saying sorry has always been difficult, but our culture seems to make it even harder. We may not conduct literal witch hunts any more, but we do metaphorical ones. If you are found out to have said the wrong thing, admit you have changed your mind, or that you made a horrible mistake, you are likely to get accused of inconsistency, cancelled on social media, sacked from your job, vilified at the court of Twitter. It could mean losing your reputation, your job, your friends and, well, everything.  

A line of books have come out in recent times, pointing out that we live in one of the most censorious of cultures. Andrew Doyle wrote a book called The New Puritans, arguing that identity politics and the social justice movement has spawned a quasi-religious form of cultural revolution, driven by claims to moral purity and tolerating no dissent. Similarly, Noah Rothman wrote The Rise of the New Puritans, identifying progressivism as a movement whose primary goal is to limit happiness. 

They had a strong notion of divine grace which interrupts normal human processes, unlocks hard hearts and kindles new desires in twisted souls. 

Yet perhaps the problem is not so much that we have become too much like the post-reformation Puritans, but that we are fundamentally unlike them. Puritans were a group of Protestants who first emerged in the 16th century, who wanted to ensure that Reformation in England was carried out thoroughly, broadly according to the agenda of John Calvin in Geneva, and not (as they saw it), half-heartedly. The word ‘Puritan’ was in fact invented by the group’s enemies, accusing them of a joyless obsession with purity, an insistence on keeping rules, confessing sins and avoiding pleasures. As always, caricatures tell half, or less than half, of the truth. Of course there were censorious and frowning Puritans, but they also had a profound and ambitious notion of grace and goodness alongside a nuanced moral ecology that we have largely lost.  

The Puritans had a strong notion of the nexus of sin, confession, grace, forgiveness, absolution and the possibility of moral reformation. If your conscience tells you that you had done something wrong, you had best confess it sincerely to God (and possibly to other people as well), which would be followed by the promise of divine forgiveness, which in turn had the potential to bring about a deep change of heart and habit, so that the fault was not repeated again. They had a strong notion of divine grace which interrupts normal human processes, unlocks hard hearts and kindles new desires in twisted souls.    

Now we have lost most of this. If you confess a sin in public, you are very unlikely to receive absolution in the court of Twitter or public esteem. The passing of time may mean people forget what you did and enable some rehabilitation, but forgiveness? Never.  And if you think the likelihood of forgiveness is remote, what is the incentive for confession? You might as well brazen it out, pretend you’ve done nothing wrong, deny all charges, as the alternative is to see your career go down the tubes. 

Moreover, we don’t tend to believe moral change is possible. A leopard never changes his spots, we say with a knowing look. Ex-offenders find it hard to find jobs with a criminal record behind them, and disgraced politicians are unlikely to find a way back into public life.  

We are creatures capable of deep cruelty, malice and selfishness, but also that we are capable of kindness, grace and true humility - that spiritual and moral change is possible.

Now of course there are good reasons for our nervousness about this. Someone with a weakness for booze, sex or vulnerable children might never lose that tendency, and it’s often better to be cautious than to allow an abuser to abuse again. Yet at the same time, Christian moral theology has always held together in some tension a savvy awareness of the depth of human fallibility and self-deception, with a belief in the possibility of deep spiritual and moral change. Christian faith paradoxically holds at the same time the most pessimistic and the most optimistic view of human nature – that we are creatures capable of deep cruelty, malice and selfishness, but also that we are capable of kindness, grace and true humility - that spiritual and moral change is possible. It’s not always easy to spot the genuinely reformed character from the charlatan, but that is where wise discernment and character judgement comes in, holding the tension between naivete and cynicism.   

Back in the day when more people went to church, they at least once a week had an occasion where they were invited to reflect on their sins of the past week, to confess them and receive absolution. That pairing is perhaps the key to the whole thing, and why saying sorry is so hard in contemporary life – because we have not only lost the ability to say sorry, we have also lost the ability to forgive.  

Of course, it’s possible to go through the motions in church of saying you are sorry for your sins. It can be a means of ‘cheap grace’ as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to call it. But we are creatures of habit. Being forced to think back over the past week, the time you spoke to your kids in a harsh way, told a white lie to get out of trouble, or forgot to phone someone who needed help because you were just too busy, somehow alerts you to your own inner mess. Add to that the promise that a heartfelt confession will be met with the pronouncement of genuine pardon, then it makes it just a little easier to say an abject apology to someone else when you need to, not evading the truth, not excusing yourself, just saying you messed up and got it wrong, because you know what’s coming afterwards – forgiveness.  

The dynamic of confession, forgiveness and the possibility of moral change doesn’t take away the need for shrewd judgement of character, but its loss arguably makes it much harder for us to say we are sorry, and are truly repentant.  

Politicians, pundits and other public figures may find it hard to say sorry. And we are perhaps right to expect them to do so. But unless we learn how to forgive, then we will reap a harsh society where ‘sorry’ is not just the hardest, but the rarest word.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.