The trouble with Christianity

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.

2 thoughts on “The trouble with Christianity”

  1. Hey! Nkhensani here.
    I must raise counter arguments and begin a lengthy conversation: this stance you take of “forgiving others as (1) God has forgiven us and (2) so that God will forgive us our sins” is problematic is it not?! Firstly we need the apology from the other side which we must accept in light of our Christian context and the mercy meted our to us. But this also places the burden on we, the Christians. People wrong us and sincerely or merely procedurally they seek forgiveness and we not only have to forgive them, but we must be reconciled to that person as before ( I’ll going to need CliveStaples to expand on his practical application of this!)
    My argument would go along the lines of: but this is jst a free pass allowing people to continually and constantly sin against me then seek my forgiveness which I would give and I would be open to loving this person again and not holding their faults against them (and realization would dawn on me as I realised “Aaahhhhh! I see what my actions are mirroring here!”)
    Except this saintly position does not cater to all the “touchy feely” 21st century intangibles does it?! Boundaries – self care – authentic living – toxic people…
    So the question Doc, is how do we practice forgiveness with saintly selfishness? How do we extend forgiveness to others so we can ensure we maintain our relationship with God, without compromising our mental and emotional health?

    1. You raise excellent questions. I think that I probably ought to have expanded on a few ideas in the post so as to present a fuller picture. Part of me wanted to be deliberately provocative and put the matter in very stark terms (which can be risky).

      On the one hand, we are challenged to be extravagant in how we forgive and treat others, just as God does us. A Christian can’t run away from that calling. The other side of it touches on what you spoke to. What about wisdom and discernment in how we forgive? I think we are meant to exercise those virtues as well, to discern when we might be getting taken advantage of, and if the other party truly has repented or not (is the fruit of repentance there?). If they are not sincere in their request for forgiveness, I’m not sure we are called to give them a pass. (In that case, what do you do with the pent-up feelings? Seek revenge-cum-justice? Or leave them in God’s hands and seek healing for yourself? “Vengeance is mine”, says the Lord. We can also preserve our health by delivering such people into God’s hands).

      Additionally, forgiveness does not mean a lack of consequences. Maybe here I’ll say that relating to what Clive Staples says, it’s an ideal we ought to strive to, to relate to that person the same way as before (certainly, God does that with us) but we are human and frail, and we will falter as we pursue that ideal. But pursue it we must. We can’t discount the fact that the ability to forgive and love a person again is not something that occurs to us naturally, but something that is put into us with that new birth – that’s evidenced by the fact that our small human perspective on this infects how we relate to God. Often, after seeking forgiveness, we can’t help but think we still have to do something else to earn our place back into God’s good books. We need to grow out of that.

      Something I’m still exploring a bit is the fact that though Jesus loved everyone, He still had an inner circle, and as John 2 says, He did not entrust Himself to people because he knew what was in them. I think you can love people without letting them into your inner sanctum. Toxic people aren’t a 21st-century phenomenon. Boundaries for humans aren’t a bad thing – they can be healthy. You don’t need to expose yourself to everyone and let everyone into your confidences – some people may need to have their ‘top secret’ clearance revoked.

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