To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. - C.S. Lewis
This quote, from an essay written by Lewis in August of 1947, was eye-opening for me. If you had cornered me a week ago, I would have defined forgiveness in terms of letting go of things that had been done to harm me. But Lewis points out a very important distinction in this essay. If what you did to me has justification, it does not need to be forgiven. If you had very good reasons and it was excusable, letting go of it is not forgiveness - it's just fairness. Why should I hold something against you that was ok to start with?
Of course, most actions of humans are not that clear cut. Unless you're pure evil, the offense may be partially justified but also poorly handled because of the flesh. So I should forgive you of the portion that was without excuse, and excuse you for the part that was justified. How do I know? I don't. And that's the beauty of God's forgiveness. He knows our hearts, and knows exactly what comes out of our corruption and what was done because it was necessary or justified. And he gives us just the right amount of forgiveness when we come to him and accept it.
I saw a great example of this as I was watching a movie tonight with a couple of friends. It was Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps. In the scene linked below, Gordon Gekko (the symbol of how greed leads to a fall) is talking to his daughter, who blames him for the suicide of her brother. Embedding is disabled for this video, so please watch it at this link.
What struck me is that Gekko's plea for forgiveness was a mixture of real admission of guilt ("beat myself up", "mistakes I made as a father") and also giving some reasons that he was not really responsible ("it's like he had cancer", "you cannot blame me"). But ultimately he pleads, "Try to forgive me."
Based on this one scene alone (and yes, I saw the rest of the movie), did he need forgiveness? Or fairness? Probably a combination of the two. His greed made him a bad father and landed him in prison - that was on him. But he was not responsible for all the demons his son faced, so it was probably unfair to hang the suicide on him. But there was plenty that needed forgiving!
Seem like I'm splitting hairs? I don't think so, and here's why: How many times have you thought that something was unforgivable? Maybe it was someone who hurt you and it was so vicious that there's no excuse for it. Or maybe they hurt someone you love. Maybe you think you've done something so wrong that God could never forgive you.
Here's the good news: the fact that it's inexcusable is exactly why it forgivable. If it's excusable, no big deal...what's to forgive? But if it is so "out there" that you see no justification, it's time to forgive! Because that's what forgiveness is, and that's what God has done for you through the Messiah Jesus.
Thanks be to God for his great mercy. May I pass it along!