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

He Wept & He Slept: Do You Take Discipline Like David?

Woman with head down being disciplined

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.

Psalm 3:3

What do you know about David? I mean, beyond slaying Goliath and sleeping with Bathsheba?

Did you know that God said (Acts 13:2), “I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart“?

Why was David a Man after God’s Heart?

Why did David receive such an honor? What was it about David that would have God give him such high praise?

I don’t know all the reasons why. But I think they include the way he worshiped with his whole heart (Psalm 86:12), fearlessly fought for God’s glory (1 Samuel 17:45), and persistently sought the LORD’s face (2 Samuel 21:1).

But I think there’s another reason.

David was God’s man because David took God’s discipline with meekness. Whether it came directly from the hand of a holy God or through the second cause of a sinful man, David received it as from a loving God who intended his good. He did not “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose heart when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:5b).

In other words, he neither blew it off nor withered into a self-pitying heap.

What Was It About David?

David knew that the presence of consequences does not mean the absence of God’s love. Centuries before God breathed it out, David knew the truth of Hebrews 12:6, that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Which is probably why he could say, Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it.

David was used to God’s hand. He was a tamed horse, easily steered, not a foolish mule or a bucking bronco. The Latin word for meekness is mansuetus. It means tame, a compound of the words that mean “used to” and “hand.”

David was a man after God’s heart because he was used to God’s hand.

If meekness is key to delighting God’s heart, then how can we grow more meek?

Curses And Stones

Well. It turns out meekness grows when we are provoked. Like when Shimei hurled curses and stones.

Shimei was a pain in King David’s neck. He was a distant relative of King Saul, and a bitter provocateur. Now, decades after Saul’s death, he still resents David’s kingship. Shimei is not afraid to kick a man— even a king—when he’s down.

Here’s the scene: King David is running for his life, fleeing a hostile takeover by his usurper son Absalom. He and his loyal followers are just outside the city when they hear Shimei heckling, “Get out, get out, you worthless man. The LORD has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul… you are caught in your own evil” (2 Samuel 16:8).

To which Abishai, a loyal, right hand man asks, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.”

A less meek, wounded dog would have.

But David didn’t.

Leave Him Alone

He didn’t let Abishai take revenge. Even though it was well within his power to avenge Shimei, he did not. Instead, I think he realized that God might be speaking to him through this cursing critic.

Here’s David’s reply,

Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today.”

And as David and his men went along the road, Shimei went along the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went, threw stones at him and kicked up dust.

2 Samuel 16:11-13

He that is down fears no fall, John Bunyan wrote. The king is down, running from his rebel son while Shimei goes alongside, hurling curses and stones.

But David calls off Abishai. He doesn’t defend himself, but leaves vengeance to God.

He lets Shimei speak.

3 Reasons David Let Shimei Speak

Bible teacher David Guzik offers three reasons why David let Shimei curse. He doesn’t use the word meek, but do you hear it?

David let Shimei speak because:

1. He saw the hand of God in every circumstance (The LORD has said to him). He knew that God was more than able to shut Shimei up; David didn’t need to give the order.

2. He put the “Shimei problem” in perspective. (See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite?) David knew that his real problem was Absalom not Shimei, and he did not lose this perspective.

3.  He knew that God’s hand was on the future as well as the present. (It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day) David knew that God would take care of the future.

But that doesn’t mean David didn’t grieve.

David Wept

In 2 Samuel 15 we read, David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.

Forgiveness does not mean consequence-free.

In a probing message on David and Absalom, Paul Tripp explains why the king wept.

This is a monarchy—in order for Absalom to take the throne, David must die. David weeps for the people he loves, people he can no longer lead.

But there is another reason for David’s weeping…When Nathan confronted David with the sin of adultery and murder, he predicted that evil would rise from the house of David against him—as a direct result of David’s sin. He is not just mourning his son. He is mourning the consequences of his sin.

The man after God’s own heart experienced God’s forgiveness (Psalm 32:1). But he still mourned the consequences of his sin. David’s sin with Bathsheba brought consequences on himself, his family and his kingdom.

So he wept.

But godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. We do well to weep over our sin

So David wept.

And David Slept

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.

That’s what Psalm 3 verse 5 says. David wrote that. But do you know when?

The superscript over the third Psalm reads, “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.”

David wrote that when he had every reason not to sleep. In How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep, Kevin DeYoung, explains,

When David wrote “How many are my foes!” (Psalm 3:1), he is not just waxing poetic. There were literally thousands of people risen against him. David had massive, life-threatening, family-disintegrating, career-shattering problems.

And yet, David slept.

There was an army trying to kill him. His own son hated him to death. His family had turned against him. Yet God was a shield about him, his glory, and the lifter of his head.

So David slept.

Do you take discipline like David?

In the face of discipline, David did what maturing children of God do. It’s explained Hebrews 12:5, “My son, do not take lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose heart when you are corrected by him.” The meek avoid both extremes.

David didn’t take God’s discipline lightly. He didn’t “blow it off” as if his sin was no big deal. He wept.

But he also didn’t crumble into a heap. David did what the meek do when they’re disciplined: He confessed his sin and trusted God’s love. Then he slept.

He wept and then he slept.

At the moment we kiss the rod of his discipline meekness is being formed in us. We are growing into men and women after God’s heart.

But David’s is a tough act to follow.

I Hang My Head

A friend cared enough to confront me about some unkind words I spoke to her recently. I listened to her and agreed.

Guilty as charged.

But I hung my head. I was a puppy cowering beside her on the bench, my tail between my legs. My friend called me on that too.

Why are you sitting like that, with your head down?

I’m a complex case and I know it. But a big part of the answer was the obvious one.

I guess I still don’t like to be corrected.

It’s part of the “all or nothing” syndrome. Does it challenge you too?

It rears its head in relationships this way: When I realize I’ve hurt someone, I’m tempted to disengage and walk away. That’s the “nothing.” But the “all” would have me go hyper-verbal, defending my cause and explaining why her thin skin is the problem.

But that’s not what David did. All-or-nothing is not how the man after God’s own heart took discipline.

What about you?

Like great David’s Greater Son, David entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). He didn’t face off with Shimei. He accepted hard words because he trusted that God would right wrongs.

When you face discipline, even from the mouth of a sinful man, will you let the LORD be the shield about you, your glory and the lifter of your head

What about you? Are you moving toward David’s wept-then-slept response? Do you graciously accept God’s discipline while trusting in His love?

The Lifter Of My Head

My friend Jen told me a story about her four-year old. Grace did something very naughty one morning. She made a mural on the wall with Jen’s Sharpies.

So they had a talk. Then Jen sent Grace to her room.

When lunchtime came, Grace slunk in, chin down, eyes glued to the floor.

But Jen loves Grace. That’s why she disciplined her and why she knelt beside her and stroked her tear-smeared cheeks.

Then Jen did what God does. She lifted up her child’s head.

And Grace did what meek ones do. She melted in her mama’s hug.

Let us pray that we may kiss the rod and bless the hand that holds it.

Let us pray unto God that we may see His hand in every affliction and say, as David does, “Oh, Lord, Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me!”

Thomas Watson

Discountenanced: When God Hides His Face

Angry boy facing away discountenance

We didn’t know what discountenanced really meant until Bilbo started his smuggle in Smaug’s lair and Gabe bawled, I’m not listening.

Then he plugged his ears and shouted, I can’t hear you.

But he could.

We can’t hear, Bud. If you don’t obey and quiet down, you will be punished.

He did not and he would not. So I did what I had to do. I sent Gabe from my presence. I turned my face away.

Gabe, go out in the hall. You may listen there. Come back when you will listen.

He balked. Instead of heading to bed, he clapped hands over his ears, and wailed louder.

Go. A. Way. Get out of my sight. You may come back when you are quiet.

Then I waited for him to return. How I waited for him to return.  

A Most Grueling Parental Duty

You have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:10

A lego man with face turned away from another lego man.

It had held every promise of a perfect night. 

Apart all day, we four were back together at night. We feasted on our favorites: beef fajitas topped with home-made salsa and vanilla bean crowned with Magic-shell. Then Chinese checkers and baths for the boys before we all snuggled in for a first-rate family film.  

Gabe was in a very good place. The boundary lines had fallen for him in pleasant places. It began a night of delight.

But the DVD stopped and bedtime came and Gabe pushed the boundaries. He was bent on hearing his bedtime story— THE HOBBIT—on the couch. I agreed to that. But when finally bedtime came, he stomped and stormed and plopped himself down defiant. He turned his back on me bawling like a little man banshee. 

That’s when the night turned ugly. But the next hour included a most-grueling parental duty. 

Your Sins Have Hidden His Face

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you… Isaiah 59:2

Some wise Christians won’t use the word punishment when they discipline their kids. I do. Not often, and I wish never. But in this fleeting season, sometimes I do punish. By punish, I do mean that bit of discipline that is intended to inflict a penalty for an offense. 

I don’t mean paying them back or giving them what they deserve. That work is entirely God’s. And thanks be, He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10). 

But our merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness Lord does discipline his children. He lets our sins separate us. The perfect Father found it necessary to punish his hard-hearted children. God turned his face from his people (Ezekiel 14:8, Leviticus 20:3-5, Jeremiah 21:5). He did not approve. He could not approve.

So when our children turn away, rebel and refuse to obey, we cannot approve. We cannot countenance, we cannot look on or look past defiant, hands-pressed-over ears rebellion.

So we discountenance. We turn our faces away.

Defining Discountenance

“In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:8

The Westminster Catechism (1648) uses the word discountenance to describe the “Duties Required of Superiors towards their Inferiors” (Q. 129). Scripture seems to reserve the punishing job for parents and for civil authorities. It is not our job to punish a spouse or friend—or an enemy. It is for us to do good, love mercy, and walk humbly and with truth in love. These are our appointed tasks. 

But for our children, punishment may be right. Two centuries after the catechism, J.C. Ryle listed punishment as one of The Duties Of Parents:

Fathers and mothers, I tell you plainly, if you never punish your children when they are in fault, you are doing them a grievous wrong…Reader, if you would train your children wisely, mark well how God the Father trains His. For He does all things well. 

But it is so hard. Done right, discipline truly hurts me more that it hurts you. But it is a work to which all loving parents are called (Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 23:13-14). And it is a purposeful pain maturing saints are called to bear (Lamentations 3:22-30, James 1:2-4). 

So we pray that after the hard work, and all discipline- from correcting to training to punishing- is hard work, it will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness

He Longs To Be Gracious

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33

There is such grace in God’s face. It was there for the woman caught in adultery when Jesus stood up and looked at her, and for the rich young man and the Gadarene who was Legion. 

But when hearts are diamond-hard, our ears are plugged, and we sinfully walk away, our lovingly jealous Lord doesn’t shove up our chin and force us to face him. He waits, but He won’t approve. He longs, but He won’t condone. God yearns for our return, but he might look away until we turn to him.

  • The LORD waits, He longs to be gracious to you, to show mercy. In repentance and rest is salvation, he said. But you were unwilling (Isaiah 30: 18, 15, see also Isaiah 8:17 and 54:8). 
  • Return to me, your fountain of living water and I will heal you. But my people have forgotten me, forsaken me, so I will show them my back, not my face (Jeremiah 18:15, 17).
  • My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. But, when I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed (Hosea 7:1). 

While we sit and bawl in the hall, he may let us feel the shame and disgrace we deserve. Being discountenanced is bitter. Divine disapproval of our defiant disobedience smarts. Therefore repent and return, Peter preached, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

The Grace In His Shining Face

The LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD lift up his countenance to you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

But then we remember the bitterness and the gall, and the pain of being separated from His shining face drives us back to its light. Then we confess our sin and he covers it. And the moment he does, we cry with Micah, Who is a God like you, pardoning sin and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love (7:18). 

But that covering and passing over comes at high cost. It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10). We considered that Son smitten, stricken, afflicted by his Father. But he bore our punishment. Like disobedient sheep, we’d strayed. We didn’t heed his voice. But now we’ve returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). 

Maybe it was for sheer fatigue or for want of blanket and brown Bear-bear, or maybe he was contrite to the core. Maybe the little banshee boy simply came to his senses and realized he’d be better off beside brother in bed. Or maybe it just sounded cozier to hear how Smaug was taken down while mom rubbed his back than to rage alone at the far end of the hall.

Whatever the reason, Gabe obeyed and lay down his sweaty little head.

Then you better believe I turned my shining face to him.


“Sorry for plugging my ears. And interrupting and being a crybaby.
Sorry for grumbling when you told me no.
Will you please forgive me?”

(But of course, my child.)

How Bitter Turned Sweet & Good Friday Turned Great

Cross Good Friday

Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.

Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.

I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.

Before Pride Died

But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.

So I tried to look for the kernel of truth in criticism that mostly seemed off- Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. And I tried to apply the cure for passive-aggressivetrust that God means good, leave him your hurt, and do good. By grace, I try to take my advice.

Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.

Why Good Friday Is Good

Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Good Friday is good because by Christ’s death, we are freed from the penalty of sin and the guilt of sin. Because he bore our sins.

That is why Good Friday is good.

Marahs Made Sweet

I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.

That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”

O My Saviour,

I thank thee from the depths of my being

    for thy wondrous grace and love

  in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.

May thy cross be to me

  as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…

I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.

Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.

They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.

How Good Friday Turned Great

Last night I tasted both. Bitterness first- It was my sin that held him there.

But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.

Christ died for this.

Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).

That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:

Christ died for this.

I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.

And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.

In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…

The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together