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?
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.”
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. I forced myself to do it, Saul explained.
“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.