Often in my reading or discussions with others I become aware of something I had never thought of before. The last several days I’ve been mulling over something I read last week that was totally new to me. It was in a recent book of selected previously published writings by C.S. Lewis entitled How to Be a Christian: Reflections and Essays (published by HarperOne).
Lewis acknowledges that unless he is very careful, “when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me.” He then adds, “But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.”
What is the difference? For Lewis the difference concerns circumstances and responsibility.
He also notes that excusing and forgiving is not limited to our relationship with God, but with others as well. We both need to be forgiven and/or excused by others, and others need to be excused and/or forgiven by us. But it is not always a simple matter of either one or the other. Lewis notes that many times, either between us and God, or between people, there may be needed a mixture of both forgiveness and excusing.
What Lewis writes that most convicts me is “the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” He didn’t note the connection, but I was struck that often when we ask to be excused (instead of forgiven) the request comes with excuses. While there can be “extenuating circumstances,” those circumstances rarely completely excuse our sin.
Summarizing what Lewis suggests (in my own words), we have to admit, confess, and/or own what is inexcusable in terms of our sin. Real forgiveness is the result of being honest with ourselves and God and asking Him for it.
The basic premise is the same when it comes to forgiving and being forgiven by others. Forgiving and excusing wrongs and hurts are not the same thing. Lewis declares “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (Lewis does not raise the issue, but I personally do not believe forgiving someone means we have to put ourselves back into a situation in which they can wrong us again or continue to wrong us.)
Thank God for His love, mercy, and grace shown in forgiving us. Let’s make fewer excuses and take more responsibility for our sin. And let’s do what Jesus told us to do: forgive others in the same way we are forgiven.
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