847) C. S. Lewis’s Essay on Forgiveness (part one of two)

1 Church5

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Sawston, England, oldest part of church was built in 1066 A. D.


There have been quotes from this essay in previous Emailmeditations, but the next two meditations will contain the entire piece.  Lewis wrote this as an article for a parish newsletter at the request of Father Patrick Kevin Irwin (1907-1965), who at that time was serving at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in Sawston, Cambridgeshire county, in England.  However, Father Irwin was transferred to another parish before it could be published.  Many years later, after Father Irwin died, family members discovered the manuscript among his papers.  It was first published in 1975.  


     We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying.  For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed.  At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in.  “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.”  But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church.  And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right.  To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought.  Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

     We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us.  There is no doubt about the second part of this statement.  It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord.  If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven.  No part of his teaching is clearer and there are no exceptions to it.  He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins, provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort.  We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated.  If we don’t we shall be forgiven none of our own.

     Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins.  Take it first about God’s forgiveness.  I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different.  I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me.  But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.  Forgiveness says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.”  But excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.”  If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.  In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.  Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two.  Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven.  If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it.  But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.  What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.”  We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.  And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.  They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.  (continued…)


Matthew 6:14-15  —  (Jesus said), “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Luke 6:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Colossians 3:13  —  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.


Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

–Jesus, Matthew 6:12