No Excuses, Real Forgiveness

Man holding rock that says forgiveness

The trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.

—C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness”

My tongue burned to tell all. All that led up to that rash word I spoke to Carrie that morning. How she was silent when I needed her most. How she said no when I desperately wanted her yes. The unkind word she’d said first. Maybe it was a passive-aggressive. For sure it was excuses.

Contrast these apologies:

1.  I’m sorry I punched you Gabe, <eyes rolling high, facing away> but you shouldn’t have smashed my Ultimate Ultron Lego guy. It took me an hour to put it together. And it’s mine, not yours. 

2.  Sorry I punched you, Gabe. Will you forgive me?

And these two:

3. I’m sorry I’m late. This cake took longer than the recipe said to bake and then I got a call as I was heading out the door and since Sarah never calls I thought I better pick up. Sorry.

4. I’m sorry I’m late. Will you forgive me?

Now these:

5. Samuel said, “What have you done?”

And Saul answered, When I saw that the people were scattering from me and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now they will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD,’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:11-12).

6. Nathan said to David, “Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?”

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:9,13).

You’re right— the odd numbers aren’t apologies at all. They’re excuses. The most quoted forgiveness verse outside of the Lord’s prayer may be 1 John 1:9, where the beloved disciple wrote, “If we excuse our sins, God is faithful and just to excuse them, too.”

Wrong.

Excuses or forgiveness?

C.S. Lewis was on to this big mistake we make, when we (sort of) confess.

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 forgiveness and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you…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.  

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 to this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some ‘extenuating circumstances.’ We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses didn’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. 

King Saul had defeated the Ammonites. His felt strong. But after seven days of wait he was growing fearful or impatient, or both. So he ignored the command and took matters into his own hands. In other words, Saul sinned.

What have you done? asked Samuel. 

Then off Saul’s tongue excuses and good reasons poured: My troops were scattering and you didn’t come and the enemy was assembling and and and…

And if those weren’t enough for Samuel-or for God-then maybe explaining just how hard it was to do wrong would make it right. forced myself to do it, Saul explained.

Buts undercut. 

I’m sorry I ___, but___,” does not apology make. 

If we forget this, we might imagine that we’ve repented and been forgiven and all is well when what has really happened is that we have deceived ourselves with our own excuses.

What should we do when we’re stuck like I was with Carrie, making excuses and thinking up buts?

Lewis offers two remedies. We can rely on these to help overcome our self-protecting tendency to make excuses rather than beg forgiveness.

The first fix is to remember that God knows all our excuses much better than we do. He even knows the excuses we never even thought of. “All the real excusing He will do,” writes Lewis, “What we have got to take to him is the inexcusable bit, the sin.”

The second treatment is to really and truly believe in the forgiveness of sins. We make excuses, maybe, because we think that God will not take us back to Himself, “unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. 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. 

This is the grace in which we now stand. It is the grace to confess the horror and dirt of our sin—even if 98% of it is excusable and explainable. It’s the power to confess the 2% and be forgiven. Grace brings the power not to pile on excuses because we trust that God, in Christ, has forgiven us.

Let Excuses Collect Dust

Driving to Carrie’s house, a litany of her past failures—excuses for my failure—flooded my mind. Truly, as pastor Andy Stanley observed, Good excuses rarely collect dust. We use them and use them and use them.

But God gives a spirit of power and love and self-control. And in some miracle of grace, I dropped my excuses on the dusty ground.

And there I stood—in the mighty, no-excuses, grace of God on Carrie’s front stoop. I rang the doorbell. She appeared.

I’m sorry for saying that to you this morning. It wasn’t right.

Her lips didn’t move at first but her gray eyes said, Yes, you have done this thing.

Someone said, We’re never more like God than when we forgive. 

And God-like, Carrie smiled and did.

I forgive you.

 

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21-22

Rats in the Cellar

A Monday post-mortem on a Friday night fight. 

We were broadsided. Both of us. A burst of unseemly anger on his part with catty kickback on mine. Provoked by a by a kind question from a friend. I deferred my answer to Jim, he was caught unaware, and the fight was on. On the heels of a delightful dinner party, the three friends who lingered caught a whiff of some mighty dank laundry. 
It came fast. Just imagine the split-second when Kitty stops soaking up your kind strokes and goes berserk. Claws extend and teeth are bared; a friendly purr suddenly turns attack. All of a sudden.
God’s grace is always enough. Jim and I have more proof now. We’ve repented and mended. Forgiveness was sought and received from the friends who witnessed our scuffle. We hope we’re the wiser for it. 
In the 72 hours since, we’ve run a little post-mortem. In doing so, we’ve realized how the being caught off our guard-the element of surprise-played a big role in our big ugly.  

But the surprise breach of a delicate topic wasn’t the problem at all. It only revealed what was alive in cellar of our souls. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Our little quarrel clinic Friday night-our sinful acts- only revealed the sinful heart that’s usually hidden away. 

Surprise is great revealer of the heart. C.S. Lewis ran his own post-mortems after he sulked, or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed

The excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself.

That was it. As Jim and I examined our Friday night fight, we both included that piece. We were caught unaware: Jim by the subject itself, a bit of a touchy-topic, and me, by his airing of what I thought was a private matter. And so our sinfulness, not just our sin, was exposed.

Lewis continues his analysis, the anatomy-if you will-of unkind acts and angry words:

…Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? 

If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. 

There you have it. The rats of self-pity and pride, resentment and anger are always there in the cellar of my soul. Suddenness and surprise just revealed them. They’re there hiding until I kill them off.

Paul and Peter and James knew about prowling pests. Be watchful, they all warned. Be sober-minded, be watchful. Be watchful and resist. Resist the prowling devil, firm in your faith, Peter wrote. Resist him and he will flee from you, James wrote.

But it’s not so much the devil outside. It’s the rats inside. I do not do the good I want, Paul wrote to the Romansbut the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. But, if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body you will live (8:13). Until I kill them off, by the Spirit, they’re there, dwelling in me.

What to do, what to do?  How do we kill those rats in the cellar? 

The Sunday school answers are still right: Draw near to God in prayer and in His Word. Abide in Him, obey His Words. Be watchful and alert. Repent the second you see your sin
And one more thing: Welcome trials of various-even unexpected-kinds. For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, James wrote. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Trial

 Blogger Lisa Spence observes,

How I react to the trial reflects what I really care about. This is an ugly truth, but one worth considering with great soberness. Whether it is a sudden devastation or a lingering irritation, what I value will be exposed by my reactions and most often this will require confession and repentance as I work through the sin and idols that are exposed.  

Trials give us a sneak peek into the cellar of our souls. They remind us that we must be keep fighting, because sin is crouching at the door, desiring to have usWe must rule over it. As John Owen put it, Be killing sin or it will be killing you. We can welcome trials when we see them as a mercy; an exposing of idols and sin that would be killing us.

For us, a Friday night fight revealed the rats. 

Maybe for you it was just a tactless text from a friend, or getting cut off in traffic. Or coming home from a long Monday at work or spending a hectic Tuesday at home only to find a note long buried in a backpack,  Life-sized anteater model due Wednesday. Or maybe coming home, instead, to a clinic call with not so positive lab results. 

God is faithful whatever the temptation. He’ll provide a way of escape so we can stand up under them. 

In between tests, be watchful. And when they come, count it all joy.

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 
Let all you do be done in love.
1 Corinthians 16:12-13