A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
“It is going to be hard enough, anyway, but I think there are two things we can do to make it easier. When you start mathematics you do not begin with the calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo (p.116).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis graciously starts the difficult lesson of forgiveness with two important and sequential questions. First, do I really want to forgive? Second, only if the answer to the first question is yes, where do I begin with this arduous task?
Wanting to forgive is almost an oxy-moron. The experience of being hurt, slighted, or offended is predicated upon a sense of justice. Without a sense of justice, there would be no standard of fairness to be violated. But forgiveness is anti-fairness. So forgiveness is not just emotionally challenging, it fights against the very experience that calls for it.
Wanting to forgive comes from valuing something more than the offense. In many cases the “something” is the relationship with the offender. But when (a) there is no substantive relationship with the offender, (b) the offense is greater than the relationship, or (c) the accumulation of offenses is greater than the relationship, then the “want to” gets challenged in this mathematical/investment approach to forgiveness.
The difficult is wanting to forgive when forgiveness is (or at least is perceived to be) a bad relational investment. This is what we mean most often when we say, “You don’t deserve to be forgiven.” No one deserves to be forgiven; “deserve” and “forgive” are mutually exclusive. What we mean is, “Forgiving you would be a bad relational investment for me.” There are times when this is a completely true and unselfish statement.
This leads us to C.S. Lewis’ second question. If we start with trying to resolve the “worst deals” we will likely be overwhelmed and give up. Even Jesus’ teaching radically redefining the investment mentality towards forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35) may serve to discourage us.
When we engage in genuine forgiveness for “lesser offenses” we learn something about forgiveness; it is a blessing to us. There is more than one prisoner set free. The offender is set free from the moral (but not legal, if applicable) obligation of his/her offense. But we are also set free. As Nancy Leigh DeMoss says in Choosing Forgiveness, “You see, God never intended our bodies to hold up under the weight of unresolved conflict and bitterness (p. 67).”
It is in the practice of forgiveness that we realize how the investment truly works. We are playing a game with grace-rigged scales. The investment we make in forgiveness is not directly or exclusively in the other person. The investment is primarily a faith investment in God and His kingdom. God extends the influence of the gospel in our lives as we extend the influence of the gospel in our world through forgiveness.
As we practice forgiveness in these “lesser offenses” we begin to realize that the primary “return on investment” is not from the offender to us, but from God to us and God through us. As we grow to trust in this pattern and more wise in the practice of forgiveness, then our willingness and ability to forgive in the “greater offenses” increases.