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Some Thoughts on Sin, Contrition and Repentance from C.S. Lewis

March 11, 2018

C.S. Lewis is revered for his solid insight and for his ability to look beyond the ordinary understanding of things. Although he was not a Catholic, I would like to present several of his thoughts on sin, contrition, and repentance as part of our Lenten consideration of these matters. The quotes below are all drawn from a collection of passages from Lewis’ writings entitled The Business of Heaven. The page numbers in my citations refer to that book.

On contrition and the honest assessment of our own wretchedness:

Most of us equate the word contrition with remorse or sorrow, but Lewis reminds us that there is more to the word. He also recaptures the word miserable, which most of us take to mean terrible or despicable. He writes,

Contrite … is a word translated from the Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now, modern people complain about that …. They do not wish their hearts to be pulverized and they do not feel they can sincerely say they are “miserable offenders” [as the English prayer books of that time said] …. I do not think whether we are ‘feeling’ miserable or not matters. I think [the prayer book] is using the word miserable in the old sense—meaning an object of pity. … [p. 55].

Indeed, the word miserable comes from the Latin miserabilis, meaning “pitiable, miserable, or lamentable.” We sinners are surely pitiable in our condition, and God does show us great pity, mercy, and love in this lowly and lamentable state. For a well-formed Christian the recognition of our lowly condition and of God’s pitying love for us can bring forth gratitude and relief.

Sadly, as Lewis notes, many too easily take offense at such notions and thereby reveal their thin-skinned natures. In our pride we do not often see ourselves as pitiable or wretched. For example, some Catholic hymnals removed the phrase “that saved a wretch like me” from the hymn “Amazing Grace” because it offended modern sensibilities. While we do not accept the Protestant notion that we are utterly depraved, wretch can be understood in a very Catholic sense. We are pitiable and do not stand a chance without the Lord’s grace and mercy through Jesus. We should be careful to check our pride when we bristle at such notions, for Jesus warned the proud church of Laodicea,

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:17-19).

C.S. Lewis goes on to observe that even if we do not feel pitiable, we are. He writes,

A person can be an object of pity when he is not feeling miserable …. Imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded passenger trains that are travelling towards one another along the same line at sixty miles and hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision … The passengers are an object of pitythough they do not feel miserable themselves [p. 55].

This is our condition, too, all the more so if we deny it. God sees our pitiable state from on high. Many of those on the imaginary trains may think of themselves as quite secure. Some may be jovial, others content. Still others may be anxious about lesser things. Not one of them is thinking of an approaching train and likely death. No, they do not feel pitiable and are not thinking about the fact that they are contingent beings, dependent on God for every beat of their hearts. They are not thinking that they are about to be summoned to judgment.

Recognizing our condition is a first step to healing. Through contrition we announce not only our sorrow but admit that our sins have crushed and pulverized us. Surrendering our pride, we realize that we are, as the Lord says, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. In our pitiable state, though, the Lord’s pity and mercy can now reach us.

Forgiving is not excusing:

We often conflate the idea of forgiving and excusing, but they are not the same. C.S. Lewis points out,

There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiving says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology and will not hold it against you … But excusing says, “I see you couldn’t help it, or didn’t mean it. You weren’t really to blame.”

[But] If one was not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense, forgiving and excusing are almost opposites.

This is an important insight because it is a very different thing to say to someone, “I did something wrong. I admit it and ask for your forgiveness,” than it is to say, “I didn’t really mean it. I’d had a long day and was upset. Please excuse me.” The second option in effect is saying this: “I have an excuse and want you to accept it. Because I have an excuse I didn’t really do anything wrong, or at least I didn’t mean to.”

How rare it is for someone to think, let alone say, “I did it. I will not excuse what I did or ask you to excuse it. I will not try to explain away what I did. I simply and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”

Our good qualities do not simply do away with what is wrong in us:

We have a tendency to minimize our sins by focusing on our better qualities. Surely, we have good qualities, but this does not eliminate the fact that we have sins and they must be attended to. Lewis makes this simple observation:

When you go to the doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs, and eyes, and throat are all right [p. 60].

Looking to our sins does not mean that there is nothing good in us, but neither will the good in us simply make the sins of no account. Using our virtues to make light of our sins betrays the virtues by turning them to pride.

The forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving; it is about giving as well:

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin? If so, you do well. But do you also believe in forgiving the sins of others? C.S. Lewis makes the following interesting observation:

We say in the creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” … The people who compiled the creed apparently thought this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of each time we went to church [pp. 57-58].

But why? It is not widely disputed that God forgives sins. As Lewis next observes, believing in the forgiveness of my sins by God may seem easy, but in saying “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” I am also stating that I believe that I must forgive the sins of others. This is harder, and often we’d like to forget that part. Thus, the creed has us mention it every Sunday. Lewis says,

We [easily] believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us [pp. 57-58].

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?

On the easy substitution of communal sin for our own sin:

We live in times when it is popular and often demanded that we apologize for the sins of our ancestors or of our nation. Of itself, this is not always wrong, but it has many pitfalls. Lewis notes,

The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the [more] congenial one of … denouncing others … [by this] you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition [pp. 56-57].

Yes, indeed! How quickly we congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened than our ancestors. How easy it is to claim the we are not part of any collective problem in our nation. There is a lot of “virtue signaling” going on today rather than personal repentance or action. Surely there are times when it is appropriate to point to our collective and communal sins, but strangely enough, the collective is made up of individuals—like you and me. Denouncing communal sin, as Lewis notes, is too easily a substitute for looking in the mirror.

These are just a few thoughts on sin, repentance and contrition.

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  1. John says:

    I don’t want to be dictatorial but C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” should be as must reading for all Christians. An excellent primer on the faith.