379) On Forgiveness (part two of two)

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

      (…continued)  The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins.  A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, 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 is not 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, it is partly the same and partly different.  It is the same because, here also, forgiving does not mean excusing.  Many people seem to think it does.  They 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 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.)

      The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God’s forgiveness is this: in our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.  As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think.  One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought.  But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine per cent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one per cent of guilt that is left over.  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.

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Acts 13:38  —  Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.

Mark 11:25  —  (Jesus said), “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Acts 10:42-43  —  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. 

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As we are forgiven by you, may we forgive all who wrong and offend us.  Help us remember that no one can harm us without doing himself a far greater injury in your sight, so that we may be moved to compassion for them instead of anger, moved to pity rather than a desire for revenge.  May we not be tempted to rejoice when they are troubled, nor be grieved when they prosper.  We will not benefit from the downfall of our enemies, so we pray that you have mercy on them, and then also give us the grace to forgive them from our heart.  Amen.

  –Martin Luther