A version of this essay was submitted for my graduate application; I hope to periodically make some of my academic submissions available on the blog when beneficial!
This is the understatement of a lifetime, but I love C. S. Lewis. Outside of Scripture, his writings have likely had the most profound impact on my spiritual formation. Reading from his body of works over the years, I have found great comfort and encouragement in his approximations of the human condition; they make me feel less alone in all of it. They have helped me to be honest with myself, and honest before the Lord; in turn, God has used his words to help form in me a deeper love of mercy. His writings on the biblical theme of forgiveness in particular, which is inseparable from Christian love, have been deeply influential throughout my walk with Christ.
Three passages of his have remained with me throughout the years. In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis explores the difficulty that every person who has ever faced the Lord’s prayer with bald honesty faces; that in which we are taught to forgive our debtors as we have been forgiven. He essentially asks, ‘in forgiving others, what does it mean to love them as ourselves?’ Does this mean we pretend that our neighbor, who may have seriously harmed or sinned against us, is not such a bad guy after all? Do we try to drum up feelings of affection towards a person whose actions we are tempted to hate? No; rather like Paul in the closing passage of Romans 7, we can see that we love ourselves, despite our inclination towards or acting upon evil. It is in this way that we are to countenance likewise towards those who sin against us. Lewis encourages that the way we love our neighbor as ourselves is by constantly practicing the same love and forgiveness towards them that we do ourselves;
“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.”C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
He further draws this out in a passage from The Weight of Glory, where he contends that forgiveness is too often confused for excusing.
“As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine percent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one percent of guilt which is left over. To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
So we see that forgiveness really begins at the inexcusable in us, and the inexcusable in whomever has sinned against us. While there are very likely legitimate ways to excuse parts of our own sin (and thereby equal excuse for our neighbor’s sins against us), that kind of excusing is really only fairness, and not true Christian charity; that only begins with what cannot be excused.
When we face ourselves, as the Lord models in the Matthean prayer, before we face our neighbor – if we might be very brave, and very honest – we will find that what Lewis says is true; that once our excuses, or our neighbor’s excuses have been set aside, forgiveness is the only available option to attend to what remains. And that is the beauty of forgiveness; it is the very heart of why Christ has come.
In his work Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis gives us insight into the practical outworking of that forgiveness;
“There is no use talking as if forgiveness were easy. We all know the old joke, ‘You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.’ In the same way I could say of a certain man, ‘Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.’ For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all. We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.”C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Whatever our ministry, at some point, and in some manner, it will come to this; both in the hearts of those in our congregation whom we counsel with the gospel, and in our own hearts towards those within our congregation. It will need to be patiently and mercifully attended to again and again, for as long as we and our fellowship draw breath.
Perhaps this is why our Lord tells us before the parable of the unmerciful servant that we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matt 18:21-35). It is not only for great ills that people are drawn to the necessity of pastoral care; the grief of living in a world made broken by sin, with its accompanying fallout of death, or trauma, or abuse –
but for the everyday grating of one human condition against another;
“This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.“C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Always we return to the love of God. While the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-15 initially appears to be a great command with a great cost, with enough time and practice, we realize that we are only borrowing from our Father’s pockets to pay for it. It is not that we hear this once, or counsel with this once; rather it is daily bread that we ask for, and daily bread that we are given. His mercy goes before us and those under our care; His mercy is enough.
When one embarks into pastoral ministry, it is done for the love of the flock in response to the Great Shepherd (1 Pe 5:2; Jn 21:15-17). The implication is that we will have the opportunity to practice and prescribe this every single day, alongside every brother and sister in our fellowship. When one loves another – and the entirety of the Christian life in community can be summarized as one great act of Love unto the Lord – one is guaranteed to experience hurt. In what is perhaps Lewis’ most famous essay, he reminds us that in life, and in love, “there is no safe investment.” When brothers and sisters in the Lord truly love another, hearts will “certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” This is true for us; this is true for those in our ministry of care. And yet,
“Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
In our congregations, in our families, and in our lives, it is love that breaks our hearts and only love that will heal it; forgiveness will mark the way (1 Pe 4:8).