Monday, July 24, 2006

Lewis on Forgiveness

There’s a short address called “On Forgiveness” in a collection entitled, The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis. With his usual penetrating insight, he illuminates this difficult but indispensable element of Christian life. So, without further ado:

“…If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. No part of His teaching is clearer, and there are no exceptions to it. He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort. We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated. If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own…

“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often…asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive… what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses… We are so very anxious to point these [‘extenuating circumstances’] out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses…

“A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in [the forgiveness of sins], from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

“When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people…here also, forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people…think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, ‘But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.’ Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)… In our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough… To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

“This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions, and God means what He says.”

We have a short prayer in our tradition: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us. Since we have no excuse for our sinfulness, we can only offer You this prayer, O Master: Have mercy on us!” We don’t make excuses; we even assert that we have none, which means we really are asking for forgiveness. I think the key passage in Lewis’ address is: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” We all have our work cut out for us…