Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 7: “Forgiveness”

[Editor’s note: this is one of the best treatments of forgiveness I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend John Eldridge’s discussion in Wild At Heart to complement the material that Lewis presents. Lewis gives us a complete ‘why’ for forgiveness, but Eldredge presents a fantastic ‘how to’ forgive.]

“Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive….”

“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?”

  • Start simple:
    • for give your sister, brother, wife, husband, parents, children, classmates or roommates for something they have done or said in the last week. (that should keep us busy for a little while.)
    • try to understand what loving our neighbor as yourself means. how do we love ourselves?

How we love ourselves:

  • it’s not that we feel especially fond of ourselves
  • it’s not that we particularly often enjoy the company of ourselves.
  • “So apparently ‘Love your neighbor’ does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive.’
  • Interestingly, we cannot make ourselves fond of a person by trying.
  • We don’t love ourselves because we think we are particularly nice, but instead think of ourselves as nice because we love ourselves, so loving our neighbors doesn’t mean we think of them as nice.
  • We can look at our own actions, thoughts, choices and see them as repugnant without hating ourselves, so “apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.” (that’s good news!)

Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

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. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.

Here’s a test:

  • you hear a rumor about some terrible thing someone has done.
  • later, you find out that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the original report.
  • if we cling to the hatred because the person really is that terrible, and would have done such horrible stuff if he’d had the chance, we’re setting ourselves up to “be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.”

Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him?

  • No! Lewis gives the example of what a Christian should do if he had committed a murder – submit to authority, submit to the death penalty.
  • It is okay for a Christian to sentence a murderer to the death penalty. This is not in conflict with Christianity.
  • It is not in conflict with Christianity for a Christian soldier to kill an enemy in combat.
  • ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ are very different words. The same is true in Greek and Hebrew. “All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery.”
  • Jesus did not command the centurion to leave the Roman army. John the Baptist did not command the soldiers who came to him to abandon their duty. The same is true for us.

“We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.”

In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

I admit that this means loving people who have nothing loveable about them. But then, has oneself anything loveable about it? You love it simply because it is yourself. God tends us to love all selves in the same way and for the me reason: but He has given us the sum ready worked out in our own case to show us how it works. We have then to go on and apply the rule to all the other selves. Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how He loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves. For really there is nothing else in us to love: creatures like us who actually find hatred such a pleasure that to give it up is like giving up beer or tobacco . . .

[[ Next: Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 8: “The Great Sin” ]]

Parent: Mere Christianity: Leaders’ Notes Series

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