378) On Forgiveness (part one of two)

By C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1975 edition, pages 121-125

     We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying.  For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed.  At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in.  “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins.  It goes without saying.”  But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church.  And I have begun to see that they were right.  To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought.  Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

     We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us.  There is no doubt about the second part of this statement.  It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord.  If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven…  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.  

     Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins.  Take it first about God’s forgiveness.  I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) 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 two 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.  In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.

     Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two.  Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven.  If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it.  But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.  What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.”  We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which 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 without own excuses.  They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

     There are two remedies for this danger.  One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do.  If there are real “extenuating circumstances” there is no fear that He will overlook them.  Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought.  All the real excusing He will do.  What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin.  We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused.  When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong– say, a broken arm.  It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right.  You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.  (continued…)

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Matthew 6:12  —  (Jesus said), “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Matthew 6:14-15 — (Jesus said), “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:  But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Colossians 3:12-14  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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We pray, Lord, that you would not regard our sins nor because of them deny our prayers, for we neither merit nor are worthy of those things for which we pray.  By your mercy, we pray that you grant us all things through grace, even though we sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment.  And certainly we, on our part, will heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who may sin against us. Amen.
–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s explanation to the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism