Last night, I arrived in Japan with members of my immediate family. My wife, who is a Japanese national, and I lived here years ago. That does not make me an expert of Japanese culture, but I am an interested observer. We have also lived in England as well as the States. I was reminded of something soon after the plane landed in Tokyo. Japanese often display great humility in their greetings and various social formalities. Take, for example, the words “I’m sorry.” In Japanese culture, I have found that, depending on the occasion, Japanese will apologize for their existence, especially when they feel that they are in your way. This stands in stark contrast to English and Americans. The English often appear to apologize for other people’s existence—especially Americans. I have always found it odd how English people often remark in conversation, “Well, it’s good to see you anyway.” While the Japanese may apologize for their existence and the English may at times apologize for your existence, Americans apologize to no one. After all, we’re American!
How often are any of us really sorry, though? All of us struggle to apologize, no matter our culture. All too often we’re like kids whose parents tell them to apologize to their siblings for doing something wrong. The words “I’m sorry” may come out of their mouths, but their tone reveals that their hearts are not in it.
Social formalities aside, an apology from the heart is very difficult to find. Confession of sin is similar. No matter the culture, it’s not easy to find a broken and contrite spirit, even though the Psalmist tells us God will not despise such a heart (Psalm 51:17). God searches the world—not just the three countries mentioned—for those who take God and our humble state before God seriously. I wonder what God finds. Perhaps God finds a mass of people who don’t think we need forgiveness, or if we do sense there’s something wrong, we don’t know how to begin to make amends.
While guarding against flippancy and the familiarity that breeds contempt, we should take God up on his gracious offer to forgive us our sins, when we confess them. Confession of sin goes beyond merely uttering “I’m sorry.” It comes from the heart and takes seriously God’s promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9; ESV). I don’t care what language you and I speak. Such words of confession translate well whatever the culture, whenever we recognize our need for God’s mercy.