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Ask God to Forgive You, Not Excuse You

Five Lessons from C.S. Lewis

God exists everywhere and everywhen. He is eternal and omnipresent. And not only is he present everywhere, he is everywhere pursuing us. He is the hunter, the king, the husband, approaching us at an infinite speed. Central to C.S. Lewis’s vision of the Christian life is the basic fact that we are always in God’s presence and pursuit.

This basic fact about reality yields a basic choice. We can either embrace and welcome this reality, surrendering ourselves to this eternal, omnipresent, and pursuing God, or we can vainly try to hide from him, to resist his advances, to reject his offer. Thus, though it is true that we are always in God’s presence, it’s equally true that we are perpetually called to come into God’s presence, to unveil ourselves to him.

“All of us are worse than we think.”

A chief component of this unveiling is the confession of our sins. If we are to come into God’s presence, we must come honestly. We must come as we are. And what we are is a bundle of sins, fears, needs, wants, and anxieties, so our honesty and unveiling must include the confession of sins.

Lewis is aware that the confession of sin is difficult and fraught with danger. Thus, in a number of places, he offers counsel on the perils and pitfalls of confessing our sins.

1. Beware of vague guilt.

One of the main hindrances to unveiling before God is a vague cloud of guilt that often hangs over us. And vague guilt is particularly troublesome. For you can’t repent of vague sins; you can only repent of real ones. And all real sins are specific sins.

This means that if you find yourself in the fog of vague guilt, begin by asking God to show you the details. Press through the smoke to see if there is really a fire in there somewhere.

If you do, and you find yourself unable to discover any real concrete sin underneath the vague sense of guilt, don’t feel compelled to go rummaging around until you do. Instead, treat the guilt like a vague buzzing noise in your ears — something to be endured as you continue to seek to unveil in God’s presence (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 34).

2. Confess your sins quickly and specifically.

Other times, our reluctance to unveil is driven by the fact that we are guilty and we know exactly why. We know what the guilt is about, and we’re trying to avoid the conviction. In such moments, we often also feel that God is standing there, watching us hem and haw and dance and make excuses and saying to us, You know you’re only wasting time. In such cases, the best solution is the simple one. If there’s a specific sin in your life, confess it to God, clearly, honestly, and forthrightly, without using euphemisms (Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” in God in the Dock, 124).

This means using the biblical words for sins. “I’ve lied,” not “I’ve not been quite honest.” “I’ve stolen,” not “I’ve used something without asking.” “I’ve lusted in my heart. I’ve committed sexual immorality. I’ve envied another person or coveted his gifts. I’m full of bitterness and hatred toward that person in particular. I’m puffed up and arrogant. I’m full of anxiety and fear. I’m not trusting God with the future.” In the same way that you can’t really confess vague sins, you can’t vaguely confess real sins.

3. Ask God to forgive you, not to excuse you.

Often when we ask God to forgive us, we are really asking him to excuse us. But according to Lewis, forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites (Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 178–181). Forgiveness says, “You have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you.” Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” Therefore, to excuse someone is to let that person off the hook because he didn’t really belong on the hook in the first place. We refuse to blame someone for something that wasn’t his fault to begin with.

“Ask God to forgive you, not to excuse you.”

When it comes to God, Lewis notes, “What we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” We want him to remember the extenuating circumstances that led us to do what we did. We go away “imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.”

When seeking God’s forgiveness, we must set aside the excuses and the blame-shifting. If there were extenuating circumstances, God is more aware of them than we are. What is required of us is to find what’s left over after every circumstance has been stripped away, the little ball of sin that is hardened like a cancer. That is what we are to bring to God. That is what he must (and will) forgive.

4. Don’t camp at the cesspool.

Some Christians have thought that one of the chief marks of Christian growth is a permanent and permanently horrified perception of one’s own internal corruption (Letters to Malcolm, 98). The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner stink. We feel that faithfulness demands pitching our tent by the dark caves and slimy bogs of our hearts.

Lewis thinks this is a bad idea. But it’s not a bad idea because we’re not that corrupt. We are that corrupt. All of us are worse than we think. Our hearts really are slimy. When you look in there, it’s true that there is depth upon depth of self-love and sin. But Lewis commended an imaginative glimpse of our sinfulness, not a permanent stare. The glimpse is enough to teach us sense, to humble us so that we don’t regard ourselves more highly than we ought. But the longer we stare, the more we run the risk of falling into despair. Or worse, we might even begin to develop a tolerance for the cesspool, even a perverse kind of pride in our hovel by the bog.

Thus, we must cultivate the practice of imaginative honesty about our sin. We must look at it clearly and acknowledge it. We must not try to hide it or make excuses for it. But, equally, we must not wallow in it either. We need to know sin is in our hearts, and we need to feel the ugliness of it. But then we must also remember that Jesus covers all of it.

5. Surrender self-examination to God.

In our attempts to lay ourselves open to God’s view, we must remember that self-examination is really God-examination. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24). This doesn’t make us passive. We’re active, but our activity is mainly in opening ourselves up to divine inspection. Self-examination is only safe when God’s hands are on the reins.

“You can’t repent of vague sins; you can only repent of real ones. And all real sins are specific sins.”

This is what this might look like. We surrender ourselves to God; we give Christ the keys to every room in our heart. No dark closet held back. No basement corner off-limits. The whole house belongs to him (and he is free to demolish, if he deems it best). We lay ourselves open before him and ask “for just so much self-knowledge at the moment as [we] can bear and use at the moment” (Letters to Malcolm, 34). ⁠There may be deeper sins, down in the black caves, that we don’t yet see. But perhaps we don’t see them because God knows we’re not ready to face them yet. We must learn to crawl before we can walk. God wants us to complete boot camp before sending us off to war.

Then, having surrendered and having asked for our little daily dose of self-knowledge, we believe (and, for some, this is one of the greatest acts of faith that they ever do) that he is fully capable of drawing our sin and our sinfulness into the light, into our conscious attention where it can be confessed and killed.

In the meantime, if we are daily surrendering ourselves to God in this way, we ought to forget about ourselves and do our work.

Are You Avoiding Good?

Finally, as we confront our own reluctance to unveil in God’s presence, it’s worth remembering what God is really after. C.S. Lewis tells a story about his wife, Joy,

Long ago, before we were married, she was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) “at her elbow,” demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in — I know how one puts it off — and faced Him. But the message was, “I want to give you something,” and instantly she entered into joy. (A Grief Observed, 46–47)

How much effort we put in to avoiding all that would do us good. This is the great paradox we carry with us into God’s presence. God is here and now, and he demands all of us. But God is here and now, and he wants to give us everything. God is for us, not against us. He may not be safe, but he is most definitely good.

“How much effort we put in to avoiding all that would do us good.”

And he won’t settle for half measures, because he loves us and wants to give us himself. And he can’t give us himself as long as we’re full of ourselves. But if we give up ourselves, if we die to ourselves, then he will give us himself, and, in giving us himself, he will give us back ourselves.

In fact, when we unveil in God’s presence, we find that we become our true selves — stable, strong, full of life and joy, and conformed to the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another.