Monday, February 17, 2020

Reflecting on C.S. Lewis—"Unforgiveness"

Go through the words and speeches of just about any apologist or preacher, and it stands a good chance that you will quickly come across some quote or allusion from the works of C.S. Lewis. It is certainly true of me. Aside from the Bible itself, I do not think any other source appears as frequently in my own efforts or has been as much of an influence. Hardly an outside-the-box choice, but the glamour of uniqueness is unnecessary when you have something reliable. As one of my favorite strips of Calvin and Hobbes says, “Go with what works, I guess.”

I’ve recently been enjoying an anthology of Lewis’s essays, things that for the most part are less well known than The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters. And while I am not even done with it yet at the time of my writing this, a few things have popped up that I felt would be worth sharing here. I will call it a series since I have at least three in mind, though I can’t say whether I will go further than that yet.

My plan is to provide the essays themselves when possible, and also to provide a few of the summary thoughts that they brought to my mind. I won’t claim to be adding anything to them, since that hardly seems possible. It will be more my attempt to get them down to brass tacks, or at least my interpretation of the key considerations. And hopefully, that will be an encouragement to attend to the words of the man himself.

Excusing vs. Forgiving

For today, I want to talk about the essay “Unforgiveness” from 1947 (which you can listen to here as read by Ralph Cosham). The contrast between forgiving and excusing was what fascinated me the most. We don’t often think of the difference, if we even think that there is one. But the distinction is vital. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, so we need to make sure that is what we teach, seek, and offer. If we make the gospel into one of excuses instead, we are robbing ourselves and the world.

So let’s look at the difference. Like Lewis, we may as well start with excuses since they are the most common and the most easily understood. An excuse is more often made than offered, by which I mean it is something we extend ourselves rather than being given it by others. It is self-justification. When we do something wrong, we attempt to establish why it is not our fault. We point to mitigating factors, unknown elements, and inherent weaknesses as reasons why we should not be held accountable for what we have done. We expect others to accept our reasoning and reassure us that we are okay, even to thank us for doing the best we could.

Forgiveness, conversely, is more humble and vulnerable because it must be given to us. We cannot grant it to ourselves. The most we can do is ask for it, but the only hope we have to receive it is by being honest enough to admit we do not deserve it. As Lewis says, forgiveness is for the inexcusable. It is for the things we have done not out of ignorance or limitation, but selfishness. Such things cannot be excused or explained away. They can only be confessed and, if the one we have wronged is willing, forgiven. If they love us, and if the wrongdoing has been made right, then they will extend the grace of saying they will not hold it against us even though it would be just to do so.

Receiving and Extending Grace

Understood this way, forgiveness is obviously the more valuable of the two. But it is so hard to seek. Excuses are easy. This seems to be especially true when it comes to God. If we hurt another person, having to look them in the eyes may cause a pang of guilt that leads us to be actually contrite. With God, though, it is very tempting to see Him as being too great for us to bring Him sorrow, too wise to think we could be expected to do better, and too magnanimous to hold us accountable. Sometimes, we ask for forgiveness but actually mean that we should be excused. We tell God, in essence, He shouldn’t care.

The irony is in how poorly we handle it when the roles are reversed. When we have been wronged, how hard is it for us to grant forgiveness? How often do we even want to accept the excuses of others? We automatically expected to be treated with compassion, while at the same time struggling to offer it.

We must try to do better than this, and we are told to do better than this in Scripture. It is the lesson we find in Matt. 18:21–35, both in Jesus’ direct teaching and in the parable He uses to illustrate it. The servant who had accrued the greater debt could not bring himself to overlook a lesser one. In so doing, he proved that he did not accept his master’s offer as forgiveness. Instead, he saw his manumission as something that he had been owed. He saw himself as excused rather than as being in need of saving. He lacked grace, and so he could not receive it.

There’s a better way. We have to let go of our reasons why we should not be held accountable. Instead, we need to admit of our failures and ask that they be truly forgiven as the inexcusable wrongs that they are. And when we are ready to do that, we will also be ready to stop focusing on the bad reasons that others give us for the things they have done to harm us. Then we can extend them the same mercy we have been shown. Anything less than both sides of true forgiveness is just a worthless counterfeit. Let’s not give ourselves any excuses for using it.

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