Last summer as I read The Weight of Glory, which is a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis, there was one that made a point which is obvious in retrospect, but had me reeling at the time. The essay’s called “On Forgiveness.” The heart of it is this: for there to be forgiveness, there must first be sin. That is to say, if you do something to offend someone, but you have an excuse, the other person doesn’t need to forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive. You weren’t doing anything wrong. You were excused.
Forgiveness means you did something wrong. Forgiveness means you have no excuse. The only way I can receive forgiveness from other people – from God – is if I say, “I did something stupid/wrong/cruel/selfish/damaging/otherwise inexcusable.” That’s… a very hard thing to admit. We want to justify things. We want to say we weren’t wrong. We want to paper over what we did and pretend nothing happened. Or we say that whatever we did isn’t wrong after all, in fact it was quite right and good.
And thus, there is no forgiveness.
The same is true of two other popular words: grace and tolerance. Because tolerance isn’t saying that “it’s all okay”. Tolerance is saying, “it’s not okay, but I’ll live with it.” In my job, tolerance is the degree by which a number (most commonly a stock price) can be off before it starts messing with analysis. Say some number’s off by 1%. It’s not right, but the system will tolerate it because it’s not off enough to hurt anything. Something we tolerate is something we don’t agree with, but let be because there’s something more important to worry about.
And grace? By definition, it’s something we don’t deserve. It’s treating someone kindly who treats us poorly. It’s giving when you’ll never receive. It’s when it’s my own dang fault I’m in this corner and someone gives me a hand. It’s when all offense was meant and then some, and he loves you regardless. But if we’ve done nothing wrong, if we deserve the kind treatment, then it is not grace.
We love to cover up our bad deeds. We dig holes and do a very good job of making sure the turf matches. We smile and distract and discreetly put the picture over the crack and pretend it was never there. Or we say, oh, everyone’s got cracks like that, we can just leave them. It doesn’t hurt anything. They’re not actually bad. In fact, they’re in season this year. We want to be seen as right and good, we don’t want to admit that we’re ever not.
But there is no other way to experience grace. Or forgiveness.
And all we have to do is think of those who wrong us. Think of those who’ve done stupid things to us. Especially if they’re people we love. Dearly. If they try to make excuses for the inexcusable? If they try to pretend it never happened? It kills things, we know it does. ‘Cause someone you thought cared for you apparently doesn’t, apparently it’s more important that they look good than make things right with you.
And we all do it.
A crack in the wall? Okay, I did something stupid with a hammer. So let’s get out the knife and cut out the drywall around it. Break out the spackle and fill it in. Give it a new coat of paint. And apologize. I’m sorry. That was wrong. I’ll do my best to fix it. Can you forgive me? All the harder when it’s something we felt was right at the time. Yet all the better when we’re forgiven.
For then, we’ve shown that our love is worth more than our pride, and the forgiver can reply by showing the same. Both of us together can show that our relationship is greater than our sin.
Forgiveness isn’t saying “It’s okay”, because it isn’t. It’s saying “We’re okay.” Because forgiveness isn’t about excusing the act. It’s about restoring the relationship. And the only way to do that, is to admit wrong. Because there will be sin, whether we admit it or not. It is up to us to decide if there is also forgiveness.