Wednesday, March 23, 2005

C.S. Lewis on Forgiveness

For lent this year, I decided to read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. It is a book adopted from a series of radio lectures given by Lewis during World War II that looked at the core values of Christianity that are common to most Christian sects. This morning, I came across his chapter on forgiveness. Considering my anger that Terri Schiavo will now apparently be allowed to starve to death, it was an opportune time for a refresher.

An excerpt doesn’t really do the chapter justice, but here are the first three paragraphs:

I said in a previous chapter that chastity was the most unpopular of Christian virtues. But I am not sure I was right. I believe there is one even more unpopular. It is laid down in the Christian rule, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Because in Christian morals ‘thy neighbor’ includes ‘thy enemy’, and so we come up against this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies.

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes me sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death and torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

UPDATE: Sandy has more thoughts on Forgiveness and Grace.


Blogger Sandy said...

I read Mere Chrisitanity about 10 years ago. I should probably go find it and read it again.

So, do you understand forgiveness in the context that we surrender a persons fate to God and God alone?

In other words, He commands that I forgive, and I trust that He will always be the rightful judge. Ultimately it is His right to forgive or to judge, not mine.

(Just as he says, Vengeance is mine.)

8:35 PM  
Blogger Sisyphus said...

C. S. Lewis goes on to point out that loving your enemy does not necessarily mean approving of their actions or even not punishing them. He was writing in the midst of World War II and he makes it clear that Christian forgiveness does not require pacifism.

Another good quote from that chapter:
“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself.”

10:52 PM  
Blogger Sandy said...

"loving your enemy does not necessarily mean approving of their actions or even not punishing them"

Here we introduce the difference between our personal responsibility as Christians, and the role of the society or government.

In other words, we are commanded to forgive and have mercy as individuals, one person to another person, but in contrast to that, the society has a duty to impose justice.

We often get this confused in modern times. Our courts hand out mercy and forgiveness rather than justice, while on a personal level we refuse to forgive someone in our family for a long held grudge.

Another thought that occurred to me last night. How does Lewis resolve "forgive to be forgiven" with grace?

For instance, the bible says "If you believe with your heart, and confess with your mouth, that Jesus is Lord, you shall be saved." (Paraphrased since I didn't look it up.)

The idea being that the only action required of the believer for salvation is to believe. Salvation is not our doing, but a gift from God, (grace being unmerited favor that we have not earned by any action of our own, but purely the work of God.)

If salvation is a gift from God that we haven't earned and can't earn, how can we be required to forgive in order to be forgiven?

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the admonition to "forgive our neighbor as God forgives you" is sometimes extended too far. God forgives all repentant sinners. But the prerequisite to forgiveness is repentance. No repentance, no forgiveness. Christ calls us to forgive as the Father does. The Father does not bestow forgiveness on the unrepentant; neither should we. Neither should we seek revenge or retribution. But forgiveness is a precious thing, not to be dispensed carelessly.

9:54 PM  

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