Sunday, December 15, 2013

Forgiveness is not excuse-making

I've been pondering lately on something that C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays on forgiveness. He has several. I'm not sure which one this is. It may just be called "On Forgiveness."

Anyway, he makes the point that forgiveness starts after we have made all possible excuses for the other person, found all possible extenuations. Strictly logically speaking, if some act of another really did simply arise out of a misunderstanding or really was not a fault, then the person doesn't need forgiveness. Thus, to the extent that we "explain away" things that annoy us from our friends (or our enemies), we aren't forgiving them but rather excusing them. Now, justice and truth demand that we should try to discern events accurately, so if we are truly finding extenuations that exist objectively (as opposed to manufacturing them because we are motivated to do so), then that is merely a matter of being fair.

Mentally, when one is angry, it feels as though the psychological movement to find explanations and extenuations for the other person's actions is the beginning of forgiveness. It may be a psychological preparation for it, but in fact it isn't forgiveness. Forgiveness is needed for an actual fault, for actual wrong-doing. So it's when you say to yourself, "Yes, but even so, my friend was still wrong" that forgiveness actually gets started. It's that "still wrong" part that you have to forgive him for.

For some reason I often find this reflection rather freeing. After all, if we were all either perfect or merely involved in misunderstandings or accidents, no forgiveness would ever be necessary. If I never did anything actually wrong, I wouldn't need to be forgiven either. All my apparent wrong-doings could be explained away. But of course, I do sometimes really need to be forgiven. And the same goes for others. So when one says, especially of a dearly loved friend, "Yes, but that was just not right!" one's mental reply to oneself should be, "Of course it wasn't. That's the part you forgive him for!" The temptation, instead, is to go on niggling away at it, trapped in a false dichotomy: Either I find an excuse for this, so it wasn't really wrong, or else I go on being angry, perhaps until and unless I get an apology acceptable to myself, an apology that propitiates my anger. Well, that's baloney. It's a false dichotomy perpetuated by the Devil, maybe even personally put into your mind by your own personal Screwtape. It is both unbiblical and untrue. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" has no room for it.

I throw this reflection out today in the hopes that it will catch someone at a moment when it can do the most good. Go ahead and forgive your friend (or your enemy) in your own heart and mind and before God, and do so precisely because you can't find any full excuse for his actions. Because you can be sure that there isn't any full excuse for your actions sometimes either, so forgive as you hope to be forgiven.


William Luse said...

Either I find an excuse for this, so it wasn't really wrong, or else I go on being angry, perhaps until and unless I get an apology acceptable to myself, an apology that propitiates my anger. Well, that's baloney.

So, this forgiveness stuff: I have to offer it even if the offender never apologizes, isn't sorry, and keeps on doing it just because he likes to?

Lydia McGrew said...

That's a good and a complicated question, Bill. I believe, if I recall correctly, that I and some commentators discussed it here before, but I can't recall if you were in the discussion.

My own belief is that, following Jesus' example on the cross, we are supposed to forgive even those who are not sorry, but that this does not mean that God will not hold them accountable for their sins if they do not repent and thereby accept the forgiveness offered to them on Calvary. Moreover, the tacit injunction in the Lord's Prayer does not seem to contain an exception for those who have not apologized.

However, forgiveness doesn't mean continuing to put yourself in the same position vis a vis the other person so that he can harm you again. So, to take a simple and relatively mild case, if a person has been nasty to me on the Internet, I'm not obliged to keep on logging into his site and letting him have another whack at me if that's what I expect him to do. If a woman is beaten by her husband, she isn't obliged to keep on subjecting herself to the abuse. Forgiveness is compatible with separation from the other person. It is also compatible with not trusting the person in the future. If the person has been borrowing money and refusing to repay it, you don't have to keep lending him more money, for example. And it's also compatible with allowing and even applauding earthly justice. So, for example, the family of a murder victim is not obligated, and in my opinion not wise, to write to the governor and ask him to commute the death penalty of the murderer. Doing so is no necessary implication of their forgiving the murderer of their loved one.

Forgiveness involves wishing the person's highest good, wishing that he would repent, praying for his soul.

I add that I also deliberately put into the post that bit about an apology that propitiates my anger. Because let's face it: Many of us are hard to satisfy when it comes to apologies, and nothing can be further from the spirit of forgiveness enjoined upon us than mentally setting ourselves up to refuse to forgive the person unless he gives what we consider to be a "really good" apology which makes us feel mollified. I don't know about you, but that's a real temptation for me.

William Luse said...

Heh. Yeah. "Really good." In my case, it doesn't have to be lengthy, but I must believe it to be sincere. My greater temptation, though, is not to forgive at all, absent the apology. In some cases, I can "disappear" people from my life without a pang. It's really quite awful, made worse by the fact that many of the things to which we take offense are not worth the investment in enmity.

This seems in direct violation of the commandment, which appears directed first and foremost to the good of the soul of the forgiver, not that of the offender. Should the latter be touched by it and repent, that is good, but it is a secondary effect. The primary effect should be that the one offended simply and unequivocally forgive, for his own sake. Christianity is a hard bargain.

Anonymous said...

Hi, it might implicit in Mt 18:21-22 (given the parable later where the servant showed contrition before being forgiven) and Lk 17:3-4, that repentance is maybe a necessary condition of forgiveness (although it may just be a sufficient one too). Or, might want to distinguish between forgiveness offered and forgiveness received, or having a forgiving attitude vs actually forgiving.