I’m not one of those people that read instructions carefully. I browse. I skim read. I don’t see small print and even if I did I wouldn’t take the time to even pretend perusing it. All this doesn’t strike me as particularly odd; it ought to, especially seeing that I’m trained in the legal and theological fields – fields where attention to detail is paramount and frequently a matter of life and death. One thing I’m relatively sure of is that there are many people who, like me, don’t bother reading the pamphlet inside the new batch of pills they’ve just bought. We just look out for the part that talks about dosages, and that’s about it. I wonder just how much of life goes like this. I’ve been drawn in particular by the message of Jesus, and the bold print that accompanies certain parts of it, but that we often ‘don’t see’ [ignore] as it touches on one or another thing that’s close to our hearts.
Lately, the idea of forgiveness has been pressing in on my brain with excessive force. Personal circumstances may be the trigger. Uncle C.S. Lewis says that forgiveness may be the most offensive of the Christian virtues. This is the case because of what it requires of us – giving up the joy, right and delight of holding something over and against someone else. Much like the painful satisfaction that comes from sucking on a sore tooth. Or giving up the desire to be sullen when we are wounded (I sulk a lot, and I discovered this fact after being married), and that white-hot part of us that seeks redress on our own terms. For the sake of justice, we dare not let X get away with what they have done. But here God challenges us – we probably have very little idea of what true justice is, and when we forgive others this is not the same thing as excusing them. This has been the hardest bit of Bible I’ve had to swallow: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. Also, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 6.14-15; 18.21-35).
What exactly is happening when I ask God to forgive me my sins? If I don’t get this, I won’t understand what I’m being asked to do in forgiving others as God forgives me. C.S. Lewis has helped me see this clearer than I did a while ago. Am I asking God to forgive or to excuse my sin? Lewis wrote, “Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it, you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.” The difficulty is in knowing the difference between the two, and actually believing that God will really take us to Himself again though there is no case that can be made for us. We think we need to parade before God all the reason s why we were reasonable in doing this or that before He says ‘I forgive you’. But if we really were reasonable, then there’s nothing to forgive, is there?”
He carries on, saying, “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…To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”. This is the bold stamp lining Christianity, and we ignore it to our own peril, seeing that we pray this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. It is unmistakably hard, and goes against the fiber of our being – but is true Christianity anything less? The trouble with Christianity is that is won’t let us be; our comfort is not its end, at least not for now.