Lewis writes to Shelburne on July 6, 1963:
“Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realized suddenly that I at last had forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I’d been trying to do it for years: and like you, each time I thought I’d done it, I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again. But this time I feel sure it is the real thing. And (like learning to swim or to ride a bicycle) the moment it does happen it seems so easy and you wonder why on earth you didn’t do it years ago…one is safe as long as one keeps on trying [to forgive].
“How terribly long these days and hours are for you. Even I, who am in a bed of roses now compared with you, feel it a bit. I live in almost total solitude, never properly asleep by night…and constantly falling asleep by day. I sometimes feel as if my mind were decaying. Yet, in another mood, how short our whole past life begins to seem!”
[All excerpts from letters taken from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper editor, Harper San Francisco.]
Those who know Lewis know that the schoolmaster referred to above was Robert Capron. George Sayer, in his biography of Lewis, writes, “It is sometimes suggested that Jack exaggerated the evils of Wynyard [Capron’s school]. But this does not seem to be the case. Jack’s apparently highly colored account agrees with the slightly more sober one of his brother in The Lewis Papers and with the opinions of other former pupils.”
Sayer quotes Warren Lewis, who preceded Jack at Wynyard, “I have seen him lift a boy of twelve or so from the floor by the back of his collar, and holding him at arm’s length, as one might a dog…apply his cane to his calves…He was the most complete domestic tyrant I have ever met with or even read of.”
In Sayer’s biography of Lewis, the chapter in which Lewis enters Wynyard is titled, Into Bondage. Sayer writes, “Once he [Lewis] had become a Christian, he tried hard to forgive [Capron], to heal the memory, and free himself from an almost obsessive resentment. But he did not succeed until he was lying ill in Oxford’s Acland Nursing Home in the last July of his life.”
Forgiveness is not a magic pill we drop in our mouth and take with a glass of water and say, “There, that’s done”. Forgiveness no more looks the same in everyone’s life than our paths to Christ look the same. In an individual life forgiveness may look one way in one relationship and another way in another relationship. Some forgiveness may be rather instantaneous with closure, but other acts of forgiveness may, as in this case with Lewis, take a lifetime to consummate. And perhaps there are even some acts of forgiveness which do not know consummation until we leave this life for the next – these things can be shrouded in mystery.
Unforgiveness is toxic, a lethal dye coursing through arteries and veins. It may take the antibodies a lifetime to work; the thing is to recognize the poison, seeking the grace of Christ to forgive, thus dealing with the poison, and to continue to seek to forgive as Christ forgives us. As Lewis writes, “one is safe as long as one keeps on trying”. The danger is not trying, and the greater danger is to nurture the unforgiveness.
I have seen people foist the act of forgiveness on others believing that physical action and mere words without soul will coincide with Christ’s command to forgive; it is not unusual in such cases for inward forgiveness not to be consummated because it lacked the heart and volitional consent of the person coerced into the action. It is one thing to pray for the grace to forgive, it is that same thing to say, “Lord, I forgive this person, help me to forgive”, but it is another thing to mouth words and acquiesce in actions that are the words and actions of someone’s puppet.
It is, I think, better to be engaged in a lifetime of working through forgiveness than to pretend that forgiveness has been consummated when it hasn’t – pretending glosses over heart and volitional realities, while engagement opens us to the grace of God, the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit of God.
None of the above is intended to mitigate miraculous testimonies of forgiveness that abound in history and contemporary life – such is the witness of Christ in His people. However, with many of us forgiveness in some areas and towards some people is a process, to be sure it is a process triggered by a decision to forgive in obedience to Christ and in light of Christ’s forgiveness, but it is a process all the same, a process triggered by a decision and sustained by subsequent decisions. Yes, I desperately need the grace and mercy of Christ for the forgiveness of my sins; but I no less need His mercy and grace in order to forgive others.