848) C. S. Lewis’s Essay on Forgiveness (part two of two)

     (…continued)  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.

     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 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, 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 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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Psalm 103:8-12:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

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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.

–From an old prayer

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