I’m (not) sorry I hurt your feelings

Photo by Clare Bloomfield. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Clare Bloomfield. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Imagine two children arguing. At some point, one of them pouts, “You hurt my feelings.” The other child, in a fit of temper, may say “Good!” and walk away in triumph. But it’s an apology that makes it possible for them to keep playing together. Whatever started the fight may already be forgotten; for the hurt child, all that matters is having the hurt acknowledged.

We never grow out of that. Not completely. Hopefully, as adults, we’re better able to see things from the other person’s point of view; that gives us the option of being able to understand and not just demand understanding.

What I find troubling, though, is the self-centered part of American culture that wants to raise every personal hurt to the level of crime. Don’t get me wrong (and please don’t send me hate mail!): true hate crimes are unjust and evil, and should rightly be prosecuted. But the less we are able to rely on a common moral framework, the more our culture of narcissism (or what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called “emotivism”) becomes that framework. In the end, we may have to apologize for making anyone uncomfortable for any reason.

It’s against such a cultural background that Paul’s notion of “godly sadness” stands out in bold relief:

Even though my letter hurt you, I don’t regret it. Well—I did regret it just a bit because I see that that letter made you sad, though only for a short time. Now I’m glad—not because you were sad but because you were made sad enough to change your hearts and lives. You felt godly sadness so that no one was harmed by us in any way. Godly sadness produces a changed heart and life that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets, but sorrow under the influence of the world produces death. Look at what this very experience of godly sadness has produced in you: such enthusiasm, what a desire to clear yourselves of blame, such indignation, what fear, what purpose, such concern, what justice! In everything you have shown yourselves to be innocent in the matter. (2 Cor 7:8-11, CEB)

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul had to write a severely worded letter to the Corinthians when their rebellion reached epic heights. He knew the letter would be upsetting, and he regretted how that might deepen the rift between them. But it had to be done. And when Titus reported that the letter had had the desired effect of turning people around, Paul rejoiced.

It hurts to be told that we’ve behaved badly. And unfortunately, it can be said without much tact or sensitivity, which complicates matters by adding another layer of offense. But are we willing to listen to the truth, even receive it as a gift, no matter how poorly wrapped the package?

I know I hurt your feelings, Paul might have written today. And I do regret that personally. But more importantly, I’m so happy that you felt sad for the right reasons: it was a godly kind of sadness, the kind of true repentance that leads to a deep desire to make things right. It’s obvious in your new attitude and behavior!  As far as I’m concerned, the matter is done.

Paul says little about the worldly kind of sadness, but it’s easy to imagine its forms and consequences: sullen withdrawal, resentment and the nursing of grievances, blaming, denial — the list goes on. If godly sadness leads to repentance and new life, worldly sadness, for all its self-righteous indignation, leads to death. Not literal death perhaps, but the withering of relationships and a deafness to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit in our conscience.

Sometimes others behave badly, and we get our feelings hurt for the wrong reasons. That’s not as it should be. But often, we’re the ones who have misbehaved. God willing, there may be someone courageous enough to hurt our feelings for the right reasons.