Mere Christianity 14: Forgiveness

In an earlier chapter Lewis said that chastity was the most unpopular of all the Christian virtues.  In this chapter he pulls a big fat “PSYCHE!!!!!” and says that the most unpopular virtue is actually the virtue of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is something which sounds like a lovely idea to a great many of us–that is, until we actually have something to forgive.  Because to forgive someone who has done us wrong, it seems as if we are actually letting them off for nothing.  And that goes squarely against everything we know (or think we know) about justice.  Yet there it is, right smack in the middle of everything we know and believe as Christians:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us”.  And there is nothing in all of Christian teaching or belief to indicate that forgiveness is offered to us on any other terms.

So what do we do with this?

Lewis’s answer is to start small.  Work on learning to forgive those who are closest to you.  Lewis wrote this at a time when World War II and the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews and against all of western Europe, including England, were still very fresh in the minds of his audience.  To those of us who study the history of World War II nowadays and learn of all the horrible things the Nazis did, forgiveness for them would seem like a very tall order.  How much more so for the people who lived in Lewis’s day and read this writing when it first came out.  I guess the closest modern day parallel would be to ask the victims of the genocide in Darfur, or perhaps the victims of 9/11, to forgive their attackers.

But whatever the situation, Lewis’s answer is still the same:  Start small.  Don’t start out trying to forgive the Nazis or the perpetrators of 9/11 or the genocide in Darfur.  Instead, worry about forgiving the person who cuts you off in traffic, the person who cuts in front of you at the grocery store.  Worry about forgiving your children when they don’t clean up their rooms or eat all their dinner.  Or forgiving your wife when she says something hurtful to you.  That in itself will keep you busy enough for the present.

The next thing you need to do is be clear on what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and how it is that you are to love your neighbor.  Loving your neighbor does not necessarily mean feeling affection for your neighbor, or thinking your neighbor a nice person.  It does mean wishing good for your neighbor, being sorry that he or she should be the sort of person who would do bad things.  The same thing applies to loving yourself.  You already do all of these things for yourself without even thinking about it; the trick now is to apply this kind of love to all of the people around you–even those whom you would consider your enemies.

Now Lewis considers the question:  Does loving and forgiving your enemies mean that you do not punish them if they are deserving?  The answer is no.  Here Lewis gets into his views on war and pacifism.  The basic gist is that war and capital punishment are OK; not all sex is adultery, and not all killing is murder.  Neither Jesus nor John the Baptist suggested that Roman soldiers ought to leave the army when they had opportunities to do so.  The idea of the Christian soldier fighting to uphold a just and noble cause is one of the greatest and most glorious images in all of Christian tradition.

So if killing or punishing our enemies is OK according to the Christian view, then what difference is there between it and the ordinary views of morality held by the rest of the world?  All the difference in the world, according to Lewis.  One of the recurring themes in this part of the book is that Christians believe man lives forever, so what matters most are those little marks or twists of the soul that gradually turn you into either a heavenly creature or a hellish one.  In other words, as a preacher I heard several years ago say it, “Christianity is not about getting you into heaven.  It’s about getting heaven into you.”

So you can kill.  And you can punish.  But you must not hate or enjoy hating.  As you kill or punish your enemies, you must strive to wish the best for them, that they would be cured either in this life or the next.

Actually, this is something you must do for all people.  Admittedly, this means loving people who are not loveable, but then we ourselves aren’t exactly all that loveable either.

I admit this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them.  But then, has oneself anything lovable about it?  You love it simply because it is yourself.  God intends us to love all selves in the same way and for the same reason:  but He has given us the sum ready worked out on 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….

At this point I feel it appropriate to see what Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov has to say on judgment:

For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.  When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge….

And on forgiveness:

If the evil doings of men move you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evildoers, shun above all things that feeling.  Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong.  Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers and were not a light to them.  If you had been a light, you would have lightened the path for others too, and the evil-doer might perhaps have been saved by your light.  And even though your light was shining and you see men were not saved by it, hold firm and doubt not the power of the heavenly light.  Believe that if they were not saved, they will be saved hereafter.  And if they are not saved hereafter, then their sons will be saved, for your light will not die even when you are dead.

In other words, do not consider yourself superior to others because you do not do the same things you do.  And do not use the evilness of others as an excuse to not avail yourself of the opportunities to do good which are all around you.  Especially do not indulge in yourself the desire for vengeance upon other people who do you wrong.  Instead, look all around for whatever opportunities you may have to do good.