Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 7

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 7 | “Forgiveness”

Question: What does Lewis begin this chapter questioning?

Answer: Which is the most unpopular virtue? He had said previously unchastity, but now we arrive at “this terrible duty of forgiving our enemies,” which may be harder. Lewis offers this great observation: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”

Q: What made forgiveness so difficult when Lewis talked about it?

A: The backdrop of World War 2, where the atrocities committed were so bad that the idea of forgiveness was “hateful and contemptible.” Lewis anticipated many asking how he “would feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?” He is not sure. But he makes a distinction between what he could (or could not) do and “what Christianity is.”

Q. What message from Jesus is in the middle of the Christian faith?

A. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.”

Q. What makes this particular commandment so difficult?

A. “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.”

Q. How does Lewis say we can make following this commandment easier?

A. First, start with simpler things. To use Lewis’ analogy, begin with math, not calculus. As he puts it, “Perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo,” like our families. He says, “That will probably keep us busy for the moment.”

Second, understand another command of Jesus, to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Since we don’t always like ourselves or like being around ourselves, this command “apparently . . . does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive.’” The command to forgive enemies does not mean thinking they aren’t so bad “when it is quite plain that they are.” Ultimately, we “hate the sin but not the sinner.”

Q. What does Lewis say Christianity is not asking us to do?

A. It does not say we have to lessen “the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them.” But we need to hate these qualities in others the way we hate them in ourselves. We should hope the person is sorry for doing it and then hope “if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.”

Q. What is the “the real test”?

A. Let’s say you hear about a horrible atrocity in the news. Then it turns out “that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.” What is your reaction? Is it relief that the person is not so bad or is it “disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible.” The latter reaction Lewis is sorry to report is “the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.” The problem is you are “beginning to wish that [the dark] was a little [darker].” This is the path toward “pure hatred.”

Q. “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him?”

A. No. Lewis goes to the extreme case of murder and say it is an action worthy of death. He adds, “If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.” Lewis makes a distinction between killing and murder. Neither Jesus nor John the Baptist suggested Roman soldiers needed to give up their occupation. Lewis believes that a Christian “in arms” defending a good cause “is one of the great Christian ideas.” Although he concedes that “war is a dreadful thing,” he does not believe you have to be embarrassed to fight.

Q. What is different about Christian morality if it says you are “allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him”?

A. Lewis says, “All the difference in the world.” He reminds us that humans live for ever. The thing that is essential is what is going on in the soul, turning it over time “into a heavenly or a hellish creature.” Christian morality says, “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.” The bottom line is that we must not be full of resentment, “the feeling that wants to get one’s own back.”

The near constant work of our lives is that “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.” This is what the Bible means by loving your enemies: “wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.”

Q. What makes this rule easier?

A. When we remember that this is how God loves us. He doesn’t love us “for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves.” This is good news, because we are people “who actually find hatred such a pleasure that to give it up is like giving up beer or tobacco. . . .”






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