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Such is the course of my life at the moment that the subject of forgiveness has been running like a river through it. On that particular subject, you might say I’ve hit the jackpot. The big one. The forgiveness challenge to end all forgiveness challenges. A lollapalooza, in fact. Can I do it? I don’t know. But I’m thinking about working my way up to an endeavor in which I make the attempt to try. Maybe.
To help me sort things out, I turned to a writer I have loved since childhood. One I knew would have something to say, and whose clear and lucid prose always surprises me, if not always with joy, at least with illumination and understanding: My friend, Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis.
I know of two essays he wrote on the subject of forgiveness. Let’s start with the first one (always a good organizing principle). His first essay on forgiveness, oddly enough titled “Essay on Forgiveness,” was written at the request of the Rector of St. Mary Church in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, and was published in the parish magazine in 1947. It lay, unremarked, among the papers of Father Patrick Irwin until his death in 1965, whereupon it was discovered, certified as genuine, and sent off to the Bodleian library for safekeeping.
It’s a short essay, with what seems to be a threefold purpose: First, it reminds us of the importance of forgiveness in the Christian tradition, and that we are commanded to forgive the sins, or trespasses, or debts, of others in our most recited prayer. Second, it tells us that the forgiveness we give is not optional:
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.
Third, Lewis uses this little essay to make a very important point in that he distinguishes the act of forgiving from the act of “excusing.” He says that when we ask God to forgive us, we are very often asking Him to excuse us. To excuse us because what we did really wasn’t our fault. There were extenuating circumstances. We had reasons. For part of it, at least.
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 with our own excuses.
Real forgiveness, the kind that comes from God
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.
Lewis believes that the same sifting out of the “excusing” needs to be done when one is talking about forgiveness between men.
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.
Refusing forgiveness on these terms, refusing to forgive without exception when forgiveness is needed, is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. “There is no hint of exceptions, and God means what he says.”
“This is hard,” says Jack Lewis, at the end of his Essay on Forgiveness. True dat. And he has given me much food for thought. But I’m still hungry. My forgiveness challenge involves those who committed an act so heinous they will, if found guilty in the eyes of the law, face the harshest criminal punishment. Should I not wish that on them? Should I set aside my (fervent) wish that those who did this despicable thing should pay for their crime? I don’t see an answer here, and I’m still struggling. Yes, this is hard.
Lewis’s second essay on forgiveness, written shortly after the first, appears in Mere Christianity, and presents his more detailed view of Christian forgiveness while retaining the ideas outlined in his previous musing. Let’s take a look:
“Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war.” Well, yes. Nazis. Atrocities. Holocaust. Forgive? How? Lewis suggests a twofold approach:
. . . if we really want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. One might start with forgiving one’s husband or wife, or parents or children, or the nearest N.C.O. for something they have said or done in the last week.
That sounds like a plan! Something I can do. Here we go:
So, you! Jackass who pulled into the parking space from the “wrong” end and stole it from under my nose at the Giant Eagle the other day. Maybe you were just having a bad day. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care why you did it. I forgive you.
And yo! Suddenly deaf friend who, for reasons I can’t fathom, seems to have lost my phone number and my email address and who doesn’t appear to understand or care that I’d really like to hear from him sometime. Maybe you’re dealing with issues I know not of; maybe you’re happy (hope so), maybe you’re not. I can’t tell. I miss you. I forgive you.
Hey, yoohoo! Unspeakably obdurate billing clerk at the hospital who simply won’t accept that I don’t owe you $10, because I paid you two months ago and you applied the payment to Mr. She’s account by mistake so he has a credit balance, and it looks like I’m delinquent. I bet you hate your job and feel as if you’re in thrall to the computer. But now I’ve retired from the IT department at your place of business, you’re on your own. I forgive you, though.
Gosh, this is great! In fact, it’s quite fun! My heart feels lighter and my soul feels refreshed already. Now, onto the big kahuna.
Ummmm. Not there yet. I hate them. I want those who are guilty to fry in hell. So, now what?
Lewis, bless him, has an answer. And it has to do with loving my neighbor as myself.
Do I love myself? Well, yes, most of the time I do. Do I like everything I do? No. When I do something I don’t like, does it make me hate myself? No. I don’t like what I did, but I still love myself. Hating the sin but loving the sinner is something I do reflexively on my own account, if I’m a mentally healthy person. And, generally, I am. I think. Lewis says that “I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.” But I am still commanded to love and forgive them their actions, in the same way that I love and forgive myself.
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment–even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I have always thought so, every since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace. It is no good quoting ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder . . .
Ah. There it is. Punishment. It’s ok to want them to be punished and for them to be punished. So far, so good. But where does Lewis go next?
I imagine somebody will say, ‘Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives forever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed . . . I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head . . . Even while we kill and punish, we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves–to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.
OK, Jack. Sounds good. I’ll try. Starting right after I see them fry in Hell and I dance on their graves.
Oh. Wait. That’s not right. Clearly, not there yet. That’s why I titled this post “On Forgiving” and not “On Having Forgiven.” It’s a process. I’ll get there. I hope. Because I need to. Because I must. Not for them, but for me. In the meantime, I’ll pray that those around me are generous and loving enough to return the grace of forgiveness to me, whenever I need it, which I often do.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pieces of music, lyrics by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888). He endured an unspeakably awful decade in the 1870s in which he saw the death of his oldest son at the age of two, financial ruin in the Great Fire of Chicago, all four of his daughters drowning at sea while traveling to Europe for a family holiday, and the death of another son of scarlet fever at the age of four, after which he and what was left of his family moved to Jerusalem and founded a religious colony. I figure if, having endured all that, he could rouse himself to write this gorgeous hymn of affirmation, then I can at least try to do my bit as best I can:
Peace. Forgiveness. Love. And thanks.