God Knows All Our Excuses

This week’s readings in Preparing for Easter center around our forgiveness in God. Just for review, we began Lent with readings that showed our position with God, moved to how God descends to save us in week two, and now, in week three, we’re confronting the truth of God’s forgiveness toward us.

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,'” Lewis says in today’s reading from The Weight of Glory (“On Forgiveness”).”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 nearly so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that very easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.”

According to N.T. Wright in his biography on Paul (HarperOne), forgiveness was a new concept to the Roman world. It was a different posture and expectation altogether when it came to faith in a god. Wright argues that the act of God forgiving humanity and thus redeeming us, “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5:8), is a primary reason for the growth of Christianity. Lewis points rightly to the instructive prayer of Jesus that ties up the forgiveness of our sins to the forgiveness we demonstrate to those who transgress against us. Lewis offers an absolute interpretation here: “We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated,” he says “If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.”

We might realize the importance of forgiveness both as a core principle that defines Christianity and one that guides our relationships, but nevertheless have a warped sense of what it really means. Lewis suggests as much. He began to understand that he wasn’t wanting God’s forgiveness as much as him to be excused of sin, and that makes all the difference. “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’,” Lewis explains, but excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.'”

Sure, sometimes there’s a mix of sin and excuse for the sin, whether against someone or against God, and Lewis points this out, but we are often more anxious to summon up an excuse for our behavior or thoughts then to seek a remedy in God’s mercy. In our hurried excuse-driven world, we are likely to forget our position when it comes to our inadequacies before God, that despite the “legitimate” excuses, “the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable,” says Lewis, needs the redemptive work of God. If we satisfy ourselves with our excuses, we’ll never get to a penitent place and be, “too easily satisfied about ourselves.”

Lewis provides us with two remedies. “One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do,” he says. “If there are real ‘extenuating circumstances’ there is no fear that He will overlook them.” As he does with the example of a toothache elsewhere, Lewis brings in a medical example and says, “When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and eyes and throat are all right. You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really all right, the doctor will know that.”  The second remedy is simple but difficult given our excuse-laden selves. We must truly believe in the forgiveness of sins. Lewis says that our excuses are bred from a place where we don’t really believe in God’s forgiveness, that he, “will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favour,” Lewis says. “But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.”

Let us give up the excuses that keep us in our own self-righteousness, trapped in our own cave. Let us cut clear and, like Moses in Exodus 33, know that God will show himself to us and will shelter us. The Psalms speak to this truth: “The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (36:7), until the storm passes (57:1), where we sing for joy (63:7), and where we find his faithfulness (91:4). Jesus echoes these promises when he weeps over Jerusalem’s inability to see God’s want for them. “How often would I have gathered your children together,” he says, “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37).

Might we be willing to admit our failures, our sins, our inadequacies, and know afresh this Lenten season that the God who carries all our burdens, will be faithful to complete his work in us?

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