Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

MARK 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Grasping, finally, the two-edged blade of this difficult passage, we need to ask the urgent question that rushes to the modern mind. Is Jesus here condemning every divorced and remarried person as an adulterer? And if so, then aren’t such people disqualified from grace and salvation because of the perpetual state of their sin?

Well, let’s say something first about grace and its disqualifications. According to Jesus there are none. Grace is not defined in terms of a recipient’s merit or obedient effort for its reward. Grace is God’s outpouring of life and blessing and love, regardless of whom it ‘spills’ on or how deserving they are. Grace is a “God thing.” Jesus invited tax collectors and prostitutes to his meals, not because he approved of their lifestyles or condoned their sin, but because he believed that everyone is sought and loved by God. He didn’t approve of adultery either, but he would not have excluded an adulterer from the fellowship.

But what about his hard words on divorce? To understand what Jesus meant when he called a remarried person an “adulterer,” we must try to appreciate his very high view of the marriage covenant. Marriage is a sacred union under God, the terms and conditions of which are not for the human partners to negotiate. In marrying, they are joining their lives together in a sacrament that constitutes them as a “new being” in the sight of God.

Just because, and for whatever legitimate reasons, the partners decide to divorce, doesn’t nullify the holy union – at least from God’s point of view. And Jesus was trying to help us see marriage, and all of our human relationships for that matter, from God’s point of view. The forgiveness of God, thankfully, means that we can always pick up the pieces of our lives and venture forth under God’s blessing, hopefully with a bit more wisdom under our hats.

EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We “make room for the devil” when we allow our emotional impulses to drive our behavior, especially our behavior towards others. When the heat of anger flares within us, all manner of associations can boil up from our subconscious memory, and the emerging conspiracy of forces from within can fast become an agency of evil.

It must have been that the church in Ephesus was experiencing something of a civil war, as members slandered one another behind the back and seeped poisonous gossip into the congregational grapevine. The writer has no patience for it, and sees it rightly as an emotional and spiritual infection that will eventually destroy the entire community unless it is brought under control.

A church has more important work to  do than settling scores and hashing over past disputes. As an organism of the Holy Spirit, it was intended to be the body of Christ in the world. Instead, when congregations become divided and possessed by a spirit of “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,” they deform into unholy strangleholds of demonic power.

Tragically, even though their marquees may identify them as Christian churches, the spiritual life inside is about as far as you can get from a genuine likeness to Christ himself. In the words of this author, they “grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” claiming to represent the divine cause in the world but instead working against it as perhaps its greatest obstacle and opponent.

PSALM 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

The special power of forgiveness is absolutely essential to the forward advance of our human evolution, if there is any hope for our fulfillment as a species. This evolution, more important than scientific discoveries and technological progress, has to do with our ability to live together in communities of freedom, justice, equality, love and fidelity.

What complicates this idealistic picture to a great degree are the reactive and conflicting energies of our emotional experience. When someone does us wrong, the act itself may be physically long past, and its various conditions rationally understood, but the feelings of hurt, resentment, and vengefulness can burn inside us for years and years. We may even have forgotten the details of the event, and the face of the perpetrator may lie below our conscious recall, but this seething tangle of fixated emotions will continue to erupt spontaneously when we are fatigued, stressed out, or feel caught in a similar scenario.

To forgive is nether to dismiss the severity of the offense or injury, nor to wave aside the fact of your pain. Rather it is a rational decision to let go of the impulse to either curl up in an emotional ball of self-pity or lash out in a vicious or calculating attempt to get even. It’s not simply waiting for the pain to pass; it’s choosing to get on with your life.

PSALM 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

There is a high probability, although we can’t be absolutely certain, that David wrote this poetic prayer in the aftermath of his moral collapse. We hear in its words a profound sense of guilt and a desperate longing to be made clean. The sin he had tried to hide could no longer be blanketed behind a veil of denial and self-justification. As long as he persisted in walling off this part of himself, he was living a divided life.

For the ego this is rather typical, but for the soul – that dimension beyond our personality where our autobiography is archived and our highest spiritual aspirations are conceived – this divided state is intolerable. Whereas the ego coordinates the multiple roles we play in life, our soul thirsts for wholeness and authenticity. While David’s ego could go on with the charade of self-justification, his soul was tormented and in deep need of forgiveness.

Repentance involves a series of subtler moves beginning with the admission of guilt, and moving on through inner remorse, self-examination, personal confession, acceptance of consequences, attempted restitution, a pledge toward moral improvement, letting go of the past and moving on. The forgiveness of God makes all of this possible by holding before us the promise of freedom, love, and fulfillment.

PSALM 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

Although David was personally acquainted with King Saul’s corruption, he never asked God to eliminate him from the field, however much simpler and more peaceful that would have made his own life. He understood from experience that God desires faithfulness and full devotion to the purposes we’re called to, but that God also is enough aware of our internal conflicts and external challenges to not expect that we will consistently perform even to a fraction of our capacity. In other words, David knew God to be forgiving, always ready to pick up and try again, to move on and get past the past.

Because God forgives – not conditionally as the reward for genuine repentance, but unconditionally as an act of astounding and undeserved generosity – even old Saul couldn’t be dismissed as beyond hope of redemption. In fact, if we should push this line of thinking to its obvious conclusion, then we would need to restrain our moral impulse to judge the scoundrels and miscreants of the world as worthy only of hell.

God forgives because He perceives the deep and enduring worth in even the most wayward of us. Besides, as the psalmist says, if God should mark iniquities, then who could stand? It’s our tendency to excuse our own sins with a quick reference to the other side of the tracks where others are doing far worse and truly reprehensible things.

1 JOHN 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we will be? What are we now? According to the author, we are in the process of becoming like unto Jesus, the now risen Christ. Recently this philosophy and teaching have been given the name evolutionary spirituality, or the evolution of spirit in the fullness of our humanity. The idea is that we, as we ponder and reflect on this mystery, are still unfolding according to the internal design of our deeper human nature.

Locked yet within us are powers, talents, and capacities that are awaiting their seasons of release and realization. Now that we’ve seen the truth, are we able to stand firm with integrity against every form of deception and worldly distraction? Now that we’ve tasted of an unconditional love, can we accomplish the forgiveness of our enemies without a question of what’s fair? The fact that these virtues are presently assimilated not fully but only in degree is evidence of our becoming, that we have some developmental distance to go.

All, then, is not done for us by some external agency. God did not “fix” things in the life or on the cross of Jesus, but rather revealed to us our own depth and future. The love unveiled in Jesus invites the reflective seeker to contemplate its radical power, to open in receptive response to its gift, to allow its redemptive energy to awaken and rise up from deep within. To “receive” the love of God from without and to have its potential “released” from within are really just two angles on the same mystery – the mystery being that God, who is Love, simultaneously embraces and stirs within us. As a son of God, Jesus revealed our true identity as God’s children.

1 JOHN 3:1-7

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

There seems to be little if any room here for the honest mistake, the venial sin, or the odd slip from the path of spiritual purity. Does the author really believe that moral perfection is not only a possibility, but something that can be mandated? Is he meaning to say that your sin or mine is blatant “lawlessness” and proof that we do not know God? We do know for a fact that the community behind this letter eventually fell into a form of spiritual elitism that took some time to expose and correct.

To be fair, we must see this short passage in the larger context of the entire letter and tradition of the so-called Johannine community (the tradition associated with the apostle John, missionary to Asia Minor), beyond whatever perfectionistic tendencies there may have been in the central revelation of God’s love and initiative of forgiveness in the person of Jesus. What was shown to us there was a grace so deep-reaching that even our most energetic attempt to overcome it by nailing it to a cross only provided the condition for its most powerful display. With that self-same love now released into us, we are empowered to love as God loves. Imagine being so totally filled with this love; would it still be possible to sin?

PSALM 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
    You gave me room when I was in distress.
    Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
    How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
    Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
    more than when their grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

One essential aspect of religion is the human awareness of being morally accountable before God. Apparently there is a deep inner sense that awakens in us fairly early, that something is being asked or required of us. Conventionally this is represented in the form of commandments handed down by God, but it can also be understood as our innate sense of the human ideal within us, as capacities and virtues needing to be unlocked and released in the progress of our maturity.

The adolescent crisis is properly named “the guilty conscience” due to the conflict experienced between the natural impulses of the body and the cultural norms of society which exist for the sake of promoting the animal self to a fully responsible human person. And even though this crisis is most tumultuous in our adolescent years, the conflict between flesh and spirit remains a moral concern throughout our lives.

One thing we need to learn, though, is that there is a “grace greater than all my sin,” as the old hymn goes, and that God remains faithful and forgiving on our worst days. All that is required is our turn to God in surrender, devotion, and thanksgiving – a kind of waking to grace.

JOHN 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus helped us understand that forgiveness is the essence of God, or Spirit, and that being both forgiven and forgiving is the experience upon which the world’s future depends. When he breathed upon his disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, he imparted to them the power to let go, an internal freedom against which no outward form of liberty or permission can compare.

Jesus’ gospel centered on the act and realization of forgiveness, of living in such a way that all resentment, grudge-bearing, lingering disappointment, and other fixations on the past are released and forgotten. It isn’t necessary – nor is it healthy! – to “set the record straight” and “get the balance even” before you can move on with your life. God is not holding your past against you, and neither should you be dragging it along. You have been set free, but now it is up to you to drop the chains and embrace your freedom.

This ideal of forgiveness was unlocked from the confinements of common sense and retributive justice through the personal choices that Jesus made on a daily basis, culminating in his decision and supplication with God to forgive his enemies from the cross. Right then and there, the redemptive power of forgiveness – of a love that is unconditional, unfailing, and totally gratuitous – was personified, embodied, and released into our human history. To symbolize the presence of that transforming power now at work in the world, the spirit of Jesus moved upon the dark fear of his disciples, as upon the primordial waters of Genesis, and called forth a new creation.

JOHN 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The really good news of Jesus was that God’s fidelity to the world is so great and so wide that nothing we do can either earn or disqualify us from the love of God. This insight arises out of the biblical precept, assumed without debate as the bedrock beneath the foundation of Western theology, that God and creation are not co-equal, nor are God and humankind equal partners in the covenantal project. In some early traditions, this disparity between God and humanity produced a definite anxiety over whether God might at some point become so exasperated with the shortfall of human obedience as to commit the entire fiasco to damnation.

By the time of Jesus, however, the ideal of an infinite patience and unconditional love in the heart of God began to open human experience to a divine grace so far-reaching and irresistible, that (perhaps?) nothing could permanently escape its redemptive power.

The term for the extreme energy in love that penetrates every resistance, absorbs every attack, returns kindness for malice, and welcomes the prodigal with a generous embrace, is forgiveness – the fourth essential element of true community. In brief, forgiveness is the act of remaining faithful to covenant while working to rebuild a trust that has been broken or betrayed.