Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I take it back. I think this is my favorite chapter, if only because there's nothing in it that I disagree with. There are things I don't understand, of course, but that's not actually a problem with Lewis and more an issue with Christianity itself. So hopefully someone can explain them to me here!

"I said in a previous chapter that chastity was the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. But I am not sure I was right. I believe there is one even more unpopular. It is laid down in the Christian rule, `Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' Because in Christian morals `thy neighbour' includes `thy enemy', and so we come up against this terrible duty of for-giving our enemies."

This is true. Forgiveness is hard. We've been hurt. We've been wounded and we're bleeding, sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically, quite often both. And we want to make the person(s) who hurt us pay. We want to take the pain that we feel, carve it out of our bodies and give it back to them. To make them suffer as much as we've suffered so that we'll stop feeling it. The worst part of that though, is that it doesn't work. You could take someone and (somehow) manage to inflict the exact same wounds on them, the exact same amount of pain and loss. And you'd still feel yours. Sometimes there's a part of you that is relieved, that feels satisfied but that doesn't stop the pain.

Human nature is to seek vengeance. To seek a leveling of the field. We're bloodthirsty. Forgiveness runs counter to our base instincts. It does, however, work toward the ultimate goal of so many of our other instincts: the survival of the species. If our darker instinct, our blood lust, was left unchecked we would have killed ourselves off pretty quickly. Something else has to intervene, some order has to be imposed.

We're the ones doing the imposing, really. Even assuming that the order came from on high, a creator god or force that said, 'Okay, look. I know that you guys are just *angry* and want to give as good as you got. Better, even. But that's not in your best interests. If you can't work together you're going to die because I designed all the other animals with more on the ball in the natural defenses and physicality department. And if you keep trying to kill one another off you're eventually going to succeed. And then it's going to have been a total waste of my time. So here's what we're going to do. You're going to *want* to bash each other over the head. Don't. Forgiveness is better.'

Leaving aside that forgiveness is not even the first system that we came up with. We came up with a payment system first. Kill someone's donkey? Pay 30 sheckles (or *whatever*). Sometimes the payment was mandated by the government and could be a little bloody. I know we tend to think of the concept of 'an eye for an eye' as barbaric, but at the time? *That* was the restrained option! That was something that was imposed on the people to bring order out of the violence and chaos. So, you know, I think we've come a fairly long way.

Anyway...the point is, one way or the other, we've come to the conclusion that some measure of forgiveness is necessary to keep on rolling. But it's not what we feel in our guts. In our hearts. We (most of us, I'm sure there's someone out there, somewhere, whose first thought is gentle. Good for you.) want justice, which can quite often look like revenge. Forgiveness is something that we're trained into.

"Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive,"

I just like that. It's very true, don't you think?

"Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do—I can do precious little—I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find `Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.' There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?"
Here's my question. Why? Why should it be that way? Let's go under the assumption that there is a God. Moreover, that there is very specifically the Christian God. He is supposed to be merciful, correct? Forgiving and loving. If God does not forgive us our sins, we cannot get into heaven. Yes, I know it's a little more complicated than that, there's the whole asking for forgiveness and salvation aspect but the point remains. God is, under this set up, basically holding salvation hostage. 'If you don't forgive the people who've hurt you, you're not getting in here.' Where does that leave the people who have been so hurt that they find it impossible to forgive? 

I get where forgiveness is useful to society. What I don't get is why it's essential to us getting into heaven. I mean I could come up with reasons; that our clinging to our pains causes anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. But what if none of that's true? What if we just don't forgive this slight or that but we're not terrible, angry people? Does that keep us out of heaven? Isn't God supposed to be better than us?

Here's the part that really made sense to me in a way that this never has before. Okay, so we're instructed to love our neighbors (including our enemies) as ourselves. Well what does that mean? Do we feel particularly fond of ourselves? Not always. Sometimes we don't even like ourselves very much at all.

"Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap? Well, I am afraid I some-times do (and those are, no doubt, my worst moments) but that is not why I love myself. In fact it is the other way round: my self-love makes me think myself nice, but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself. So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. Go a step further. In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do. Now that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.

"For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again."

Okay. And then I can hear some people saying that, well, doesn't that mean that we can't punish anyone? Because we certainly wouldn't put ourselves up for punishment.

No. What Lewis says, and I get what he's saying, is that if you commit a crime and later come to the realization (supposedly through conversion to Christianity) of the severity of your crime, then the correct Christian thing to do is to turn yourself in and be punished for it. Even up to and including being put to death if that's the punishment for your crime.

Now I honestly can't see a whole lot of people up and doing that. The sense of self-preservation in humans tends to be to strong. We might seek to make amends in other ways, but actually walking into a police station and confession to a murder (or even a lesser crime)? Not so much. It's a nice ideal, sure. But I don't think it's going to be implemented anytime soon. And, of course, the assumption is always that, as a 'true' Christian, you wouldn't do things that would require such punishment anyway.

"I imagine somebody will say, `Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy's acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?' All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves—to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not."

*sigh* Anyway. My thing, if there is one, is this: I like what Lewis says in this chapter about forgiveness. Much of it makes perfect sense. I'm not saying that it's implementable or anything, but it's nice. There's plenty of things that Lewis says in this book that are nice, counterpointed with all the things he says that I don't think are very effective or correct. However, nothing in this book so far as made 'the case' for Christianity. It's all good if you already believe, but if you don't, or you have doubts, then it's just interesting and sometimes not very convincing.


  1. I think his explanation of "love the sinner, hate the sin" makes sense and is probably the best I've heard. What I think is missing here (not sure if it's addressed in the book but not in the post, or if he skips over it altogether) is a practical step. He makes a good case for why you should forgive, but not good instructions for how. I think if he had, that might address your issue about someone not being able to forgive.

    Someone told me once that forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean you become friends with the person. Forgiving someone and making things right between you might mean that you decide never to see each other again. When I think about the person I often think I could never forgive, I think what I mean is that I could never talk to him. I could make room for redemption away from me, support things like him getting help and give him the chances to become a better person. But even if he completely turned his life around and spent every moment of it doing good, I wouldn't expect myself to have a conversation with him. I shouldn't have to. Forgiveness doesn't mean that a traumatized person is magically made whole again and able to face the people who hurt them. I think it's enough to simply not think about them, not seek to hurt them and pay them back for what they did even if accomplishing that means you have to pretend they don't exist.

  2. Really enjoyed this. I read it out loud to Samer just now. Haha....thanks for sharing Lewis' thoughts and your own commentary too!

  3. sanil,

    I agree. He doesn't really go into any sort of practical advice, or at least I don't think so. He talks about loving the other people as you love yourself and forgiveness will stem from that since you forgive yourself all sorts of stuff. But that's about it. the fact that I pretend that some other party is dead is a kind of forgiveness? Like I expect nothing from him, no matter what he does with his life and I live best by thinking, to myself, that he's already dead.

  4. Susanne,

    Glad you liked it. Is Samer still in Germany? I just want to know how far my ramblings are being broadcast!

  5. Ha...yes, I read this to him while he was in Nuremberg, Germany! (He currently works and lives there.)

    Presently (Christmas day) he is in Rome! All this next week too!

  6. I find it so funny that you read him things over skype. be in Italy. *is jealous*

    Say hi for me the next time you talk to him.

  7. I really enjoyed this post Amber, and also your commentary Sanil.

    This is the next step I'm trying to achieve with my Pakistani ex. I know I don't want to speak to him again, or for him to have any sort of place in my life, but I want to reach a stage where I no longer wish for revenge or for him to hurt as badly as he hurt me.

  8. Becky,


    I think it can be good to get to that point, if only because it probably makes you feel less pain. Or something. I don't know, since I clearly haven't reached that point in my own issues.

  9. Yeah... I suppose so... clearly I'm not at that stage either :P


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