What Do We Really Mean When We Ask God to Forgive Us?

I subscribe to a feed where I receive a C. S. Lewis quote every morning by email. Lewis is one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time, and nearly every day his quotes encourage me or challenge me to think about my faith — sometimes both.

This morning’s quote made me think long and hard about the nature of repentance and my own desire for God’s forgiveness:

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” But excusing says “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it, you weren’t really to blame.”. . .

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.

Now, of course I believe that my sins were forgiven at Calvary once and for all, but here Lewis is looking at asking for forgiveness in light of 1 John 1:9:

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

When we confess our sins to the Lord, do we do so with an attitude of genuine repentance? Or are we just asking God to tell us everything is all right? Repentance can’t be quick and perfunctory (and I’ll confess that I find myself reacting to my own sin too often with that sort of mindset). It’s agonizing.

Take a look at King David’s example in 2 Samuel 1112. David had gotten Bathsheba pregnant, and then had her husband Uriah (one of the king’s most loyal and capable soldiers) killed so the he could marry her. The prophet Nathan confronted David, and the king repented.

Out of David’s repentance came one of the most beautiful Psalms, in which David pours his heart out to God:

Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me — now let me rejoice. Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.

Psalm 51:2-4, 7-12

Gavin Ortlund expounds on David’s confession and how ours should mirror his:

Thus in repentance, we must fully acknowledge the weight of our sin; we must own the staggering cost that held Christ on that cross; we must face squarely, without excuse or evasion, the depths of our guilt before a holy God.

This means, first, that we measure our sins by God, rather than mere human factors — just as David prays, “against you only have I sinned,” even though he is repenting of sins more directly committed against Bathsheba and Uriah. And it means, second, that we agree with God’s judgment against our sin, and even join him in it — just as David prays, “you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”

We should approach God in the same kind of repentance — even though we generally don’t commit adultery and murder. Instead, we far too often utter a quick, “forgive me, Lord,” and go on about our day as if our sin was merely a minor mistake.

Our sins should lead us to feel sorry — not simply apologetic, but genuinely sorrowful — enough to turn away from them and back to God. As the apostle Paul puts it:

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.

2 Corinthians 7:10

Examine yourself, and ask this question (and as I write this, I’m asking myself): do your sins break your own heart enough that you ask God to help you turn from them, or do you just ask Him to excuse you for your mistake? Do you approach God in genuine repentance? Or are you just asking for a pass until the next time you sin? There’s a difference, and it’s the difference between the same-old-same-old and real life change.

Image courtesy of / Dream Perfection