Today, just this one brief question that I’ve been pondering all week since Emily Freeman shared it her Saturday morning email after she had been thinking about it all the previous week:
But have you
said this to yourself?
“I forgive you
If I have, then apparently that critical voice that sometimes shows up in my head didn’t get the memo (though it is losing its bite.)
If I haven’t, why not, when the Triune God has said those same words to me, written in blood and sealed with the coming of the Holy Spirit to live in me? “I forgive you for everything.”
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash
You know how sometimes there’s a theme that comes at you in surround sound? A song in the grocery store, an ad on a bus shelter, the words of a friend—all seem to carry some thread of the same theme that is pressing for your attention. A few weeks ago, what was front and center for me was the difference between how I see sin and how God sees it.
I picked up one book and read Alan Jones’ startling statement:
“I have become even more convinced that the generosity of God—the fact that the Divine loves everyone without exception—is what bothers so many religious people. The moralists among us find such generosity intolerable.” (Exploring Spiritual Direction, ix)
I opened another and read Serena Woods’ story:
“I was the adulterous woman for whom Jesus was standing. He didn’t have to convince other people to forgive me. He had to convince me . . .
Every avenue I once used to get to God was no longer open to me. I was kicked out, dismissed and excommunicated. Every Christian song on the radio, book on the shelf and sermon I could remember never spoke to the sinner. It spoke to the victim. Marketed Christianity, I learned, was about saving Christians. But here was Jesus, standing with his feet next to mine. Immanuel was justifying me.” (Soul Bare, 34)
That Sunday my pastor spoke of the accusation against Christians that “You talk a lot about grace but dig down deep enough and what you’re really excited about is judgment.”
I smiled when he spoke of Jonah sulking about grace at the same time he was preaching it. Too many times my heart, too, has held a greater desire for judgment (“they shouldn’t just get away with that!”) than for forgiveness that names sin and removes it and forgets.
Jesus takes sin seriously. Enough to die for it. Enough to insist that people who come to him leave their life of sin. But he never lets sin get in the way of giving or receiving love. He takes sin and makes it a place to give and receive love, not a barrier to it.
How did we, who often build walls and burn bridges, get this so wrong?
Jesus eats with sinners. He lets them wash his feet, unworried about the opinions of religious folk. He tells sinners he came for them, not for the ones who seem to have it all together.
Jesus lived in front of our eyes the truth that David saw a thousand years before:
“[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10,12)
I have appreciated forgiveness; now I am learning to love it. I am becoming freer to trust it, to delight in it, to savor the joy of it for myself and offer it more freely to others.
But I wonder, when forgiveness (for us and for others) is such good news, why does it often take so long before it feels like good news?
Is it pride? Do I want to separate myself from others, to prop up the illusion that I am better—at least able to pay for my own sin if not actually prevent it?
Does fear lie beneath the pride, fear that love is scarce and there isn’t enough to go around? Do I still think I have to earn love and acceptance with my goodness?
I turn back to Psalm 103 and read the verse tucked between the two about forgiveness:
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:11)
This is when forgiveness becomes good news, when my heart finally believes that forgiveness flows from God’s free and limitless love.
As William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, wrote in the fourteenth century, “All the wickedness in the world that man might work or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped into the sea.”
Societally sanctioned sins. Sins that put people in jail. My own grasping for control. Each way someone else has hurt me. All are bits of that same burning coal begging to be dropped into the limitless ocean, swallowed up, extinguished, forgotten.
It’s true, friends, and pleading to be savored. Time to dump the judgment and come home free.
I’ll be taking a course next week, savoring this limitless love and learning how better to accompany others on the journey to trust it. See you back here in two weeks!
My Easter weekend was messy. I wanted to stay and comfort Jesus in the garden; I soon asked him to comfort me instead. I wanted to love Jesus in his suffering, to focus on him, to serve him; I couldn’t get my mind off keys lost and assignments unfinished and the floor that needed sweeping. I found myself sitting squarely among the disciples who fell asleep, denied, betrayed. Who ran away. Who failed.
But in that place my heart understood. The cross speaks truth: I can’t do what I want to on my own. I can’t love, can’t listen, can’t trust. Can’t fix myself. But the cross speaks another truth too, about who Jesus is.
I’d been watching Jesus walk toward the cross. His friends and family should have been supporting him, serving him, comforting him as he walked that long road. Apparently they shared my inability to fix themselves because Jesus was the one who stooped and washed their feet, prayed and broke the bread, spoke three chapters of encouraging words and prayed tenderly and confidently for them in their hearing. His friends weren’t able to give him the hour of comfort he asked for; he left them to sleep and got on with loving them all the way to the cross. With one of his last breaths he entrusted his mother to his best friend. With another, he begged forgiveness for those who had put him on the cross.
He rose, and his loving continues. Once more, he is the one comforting, strengthening, encouraging. “Peace be with you.” When he should be the honored guest, he takes the role of the host, leading the Emmaus couple through the Scriptures, taking bread at their table, giving thanks, and breaking it. Building a fire on the beach to cook breakfast. Summoning the fish to the nets of his friends. Jesus is always the host.
The pastor says the manger was a clue. Manger: those six letters in English an animal feeding trough, in French the verb “to eat.” Right from his birth, Jesus was serving himself up. (Thanks, Pastor Tim!) Here, here alone, at the manger, the cross, the empty tomb, here, at the Lord’s table, enfolded in the arms of the risen Jesus, is our nourishment, our satisfaction, the only One who keeps us alive and lets us grow into who we’re made to be.
All weekend I kept wanting to step out of the mess and into the celebration. I finally found a truer celebration in the middle of the mess. This, after all, is the reason for the celebration: Love comes into our mess. Even when Easter dinners have to be cancelled or challenges press in close around the table, the celebration goes on. Because Jesus is the meal. Jesus is the celebration. Jesus is the one who offers himself again and again in our doubt and fear and confusion, in our longing and inability and aches, declaring forgiveness and sufficiency, satisfaction and completeness. This is where joy is, finding Jesus present, alive and laughing and loving, right in the middle of our mess.
I’d just arrived at the hospital in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, travelling in a taxi with door handles falling off and lumpy, lopsided seats.
A preacher whose name I don’t remember was speaking in the hospital chapel that weekend, reminding us that failure is never final with God. God never discards broken things—He values them. The preacher told us about the making of Persian carpets. The master designer creates a pattern, and numerous craftspeople work on it together. If one of them makes a mistake, they do not take it out—that would weaken the fabric. Instead, the master designer redesigns the pattern, incorporating the mistake. Often the result is even more beautiful than the initial pattern.
Seventeen years later and I’m listening to another preach about Jesus’ promise: “I am the vine, you are the branches. If anyone remains in me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5)
I’ve struggled to believe that. Oh, I’ve thought I believed it, but my fear of failure showed me that something else was going on. But today I realize I’ve finally begun to trust that promise. Living in Him, with Him in me, I will bear His life into the world. Because the promise is not that I won’t make mistakes along the way. The promise is that my mistakes will never be greater than God’s creative grace.
A choir starts to sing as we stand amidst the 70,000 people, waiting our turn to walk. “Oh happy day (oh happy day), oh happy day (oh happy day) when Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) my sins away (my sins away).” My heart wants to sing along. There’s hope in the words, a lightness and freedom my heart craves. But my heart is still heavy with the pain of what I’ve just heard.
150,000 children. One hundred and fifty thousand. Wrenched from their families and placed in residential schools where the mortality ranged from 40-60%. Forbidden to speak their own language. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually abused. And all in the name of Jesus. The man who speaks has listened to 7000 of them tell their stories of pain, an echo of his own story.
My cheeks are wet with ache for those children turned adults who have carried their pain on into their own families, and for those who’ve wound up without families, living on the street. I hear someone mourn that a full 40% of the people who end up in our shelter program are aboriginals. It’s no wonder their numbers are so high on the streets, with this kind of pain flowing through their veins.
But even more than the stories maybe, even more than my imaginings of the anger and pain I would feel if my own nieces and nephews were taken from our family and taught to be ashamed of our language, our ways, of us, this one statement pierces me. I hadn’t known it was the victims who set aside $60,000,000 to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The “truth” part doesn’t surprise me. That they would need to tell their stories I understand. But the “reconciliation” part? That they would seek relationship with us again brings me to my knees. We who have decimated their lives, destroyed their families. . . why? And that the victims themselves would pay the full price to seek reconciliation with the perpetrators – it seems all backwards, all wrong. I want to do something, to repay somehow not only the first wrong but this second. It feels easier to repay than to receive.
His words still ring in my ears: “Truth to reconciliation is a difficult jump because in between there needs to be forgiveness.” I wonder which is harder, the offering of forgiveness to those who have caused such pain, or the receiving of the forgiveness offered?
An hour before, we had wiggled down between close wood pews to pray, trying to wedge our stiff bodies into a kneel. Why have we made it so hard to kneel? We should be flat on our faces at grace like this.
We had hoped in our schools to teach children gospel. With our ungentle ways, we broke them instead. Now I kneel, broken and grateful, learning gospel from them.
I watch them walk together, one a white man owning his place as a minister of the church, carrying around his neck the church’s shame and hope, history’s horrors inflicted and the cruciform promise of forgiveness; the other a chief, his brother, wearing the symbols of which we tried to make him ashamed. Hands on each other’s backs, fear and shame have both lost their power as they walk, brothers together.
What at first seemed the mournful tears of heaven soaking my sneakers and wetting my cheeks now feels like rivers washing us clean, a baptism of blessing.
It underlies most every struggle. The struggle to trust, to forgive, to love. The struggle to work hard and be honest and learn to rest.
It’s the one question we all ask, and the answer is the one thing of any value that we can give to each other.
“Am I loved?”
When we listen for it, we hear the question lurking beneath most interactions.
I finally find the courage to ask for help only to hear, through the hesitation in her voice, “I have to think about whether you’re worth 90 seconds of my time.” (. . . which, as it turns out, wasn’t at all what she was thinking!)
I struggle to forgive the loss of a possession though I would have put that same value in the Sunday offering plate without a second thought. I can’t understand my struggle until I realize I believe that my things matter little to her because I matter little. I step back and hear God speak again the words, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give [my Son] in exchange for you. . .” Then it becomes easier to separate the small worth of the item from my own deep value. Then I can forgive the one who also needs to hear that she, and our friendship, are much more precious to me than a few $20 bills.
Right back in the garden, wasn’t this the hiss of doubt that led to our fall into sin? “God’s holding back his best. He doesn’t really love you. . . .”
So when someone responds to my timid question, “Do you have time?” with the smiling, grace-filled “I have all the time you need” I hear beneath it the words that make me whole, “You are precious. You are loved. I value you enough to invest in you.” Perhaps it’s in these small love-gifts clothed in the concreteness of minutes and smiles and a helping hand that we become most like our God who loves with flesh and time and an open heart and table.
And maybe, too, this is the reason for the long sleepless hours when God doesn’t give any new insight and we don’t accomplish anything but are just quiet together. Maybe when he seems not to answer prayers for insight or energy or success He is instead whispering the answer to our deeper cry, “Do you love me?” In the silence of inefficient togetherness He wordlessly declares us precious, speaks His delight in just being with us, quiet and at rest in each other’s love.
I walk down the lane where He has rolled out beneath my feet a leafy red carpet, and then a gold one, and settle a little deeper into this love that makes us great, listening again to the refrain that He sings over each of us, the one that He spends patient years teaching us to hear and trust, “. . . You are precious and honored in my sight, and . . . I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4)
If you’re at all like me, you’ll know how easy it is to slip into the same old thought patterns, and then to quickly slide into judging ourselves. It’s a downward cycle, isn’t it, making us try harder and harder until we’re exhausted and discouraged and tempted to quit?
We know that God hates sin. We remember Habakkuk’s statement that God is too pure to look on sin. So we hate and fear the sin that we see in our lives because we long to be close to God.
But the God who is too pure too look at sin not only looked at it, not only touched it, but took it into himself so completely that the Bible says Jesus became sin. He carried it so completely that it took Him all the way to hell. So when we believe the picture that has God at the top repulsed by our sin as we struggle alone down at the bottom we are believing the devil’s version – the version that has the center cut right out of it. The true picture has Jesus in the center, God and humanity united in this one Person, loving us and hating sin enough to take sin into Himself to destroy its power.
God’s hatred of sin is not (and never was) against us but for us. (Remember Romans 5:8?) Since God took our sin right into Himself, we do not need to fear being alone in our struggle with sin. God does not turn away from us when we sin. We turn away from Him. (That’s what sin is: turning from God to something else.) When we mess up, God does not shudder with horror and turn His back to us, waiting for us to put it right. He holds us tight, keeps pursuing our hearts, gently and lovingly helping us turn around until we are face to face with Him again. When we resist the turning, the love can hurt, but all of His help is given with this one purpose: to turn us back, face to face with Him again.
The whole of our life with God is meant to be a tuning of our hearts to beat more closely in time with His. So when we sin, we also don’t need to shudder with horror and turn our back on ourselves in despair. If sin is the turning away from God, repentance is the turning back, and we turn back not by condemning ourselves (that is the devil’s territory – Rev 12:10; John 3:17-18; Rom 8:1) but by quietly acknowledging our inability to keep our hearts turned to Him, and asking for our Father’s help. We’re half-turned already in the asking, and He turns us the rest of the way, cupping our face in His hands and lifting it to His own where, through our tears, we again see His smile.
Know anyone who might be encourage by this today? Feel free to pass it along.
The line in the prayer intrigues me. “May your passion and death be my strength and life.” (David Flemming) Is it? Is his passion and death my strength and life? I know a little of the mystery of how his death gives me life. But how, in this moment, is Jesus’ struggle in the garden and on the cross my strength?
Perhaps this year I’m experiencing it first the other way around, how a certain understanding of Lent saps strength. For five months now, I’ve prayed, more or less regularly, through the Celebration of Common Prayer. During Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and ordinary time, the praying of the psalms and prayers and the systematic reading of Scripture from Old and New Testaments has provided a center to return to, a stability in the midst of a changing world. Several times a day I have been brought back to the certainty of the Rock which is higher than I, and I have leaned in, breathed deep of His bigness, relaxed into His love. But the prayers for Lent are feeling heavy, the words underlaid by the sense that we earn our forgiveness through “worthily lamenting our sins.” It puts the focus on me, and I’m sick of looking at me, tired of trying to be perfect myself. It misses the point of the gospel.
We are invited to grieve in Lent, as the first disciples were asked to grieve with their Friend. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matt 26:38) But we grieve not to earn forgiveness, but for love of our Saviour, whom we see suffering and dying for us to freely give us forgiveness. We do not “put on” the grief; it arises within us as we watch the suffering of the one we love. And, for us who grieve now for his sufferings and our sins that caused them, as true as the grief is, it is held and filled, too, with a deep gratefulness and even joy, for immediately before Jesus called his friends to be with him in his grief, he spoke the words of completion and hope which we still celebrate. “Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:27-29).
I watch as the God-man throws himself on the ground in agony, grieving so deeply he feels it might kill him. I watch as he stays, wrestling with His Father until He is enabled to surrender. . . for love of me! Is it any wonder that we call his sufferings his Passion? In this his Passion becomes my strength, for I see in his sufferings the extent of his love, and his perfect love casts out my fear, and isn’t it fear that always makes us weakest, and love strongest?
Jesus, during these weeks of Lent as I sit with you in the garden and try to stay awake,
as I seek to follow you to the cross and find myself running away when I should be clinging closer,
may your passion and death be my strength and life.
May your love enter more deeply into the broken and fearful parts of my heart,
and may I learn to trust the love that would suffer like this for me.
Father. One small word, two syllables of heart cry, but through it Jesus teaches me to forgive. I’ve just seen it, how my struggles to forgive find root in fear. Or in not knowing who I am. Or maybe those two are one.
Father. Love enfolds me, holds me while I let go of the fear. My Father will provide. He knows my needs. He cares. I don’t always like the wrapping, but His gifts are always good. And He only ever gives them in a time and a way that leads me into life. I can trust this Father of mine.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? . . . So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matt 6:26, 31-32)
Father. His arms teach me who I am, give me the identity I crave. I am His. Chosen. I belong here. His arms remind me that I have nothing to prove, no need to insist on my rightness.
Jesus knew the power of this beloved-child identity. It taught him to forgive and to serve, washing the dirty feet which would, that night, lead his killers to him. It freed him to bend before other feet which would run in his time of greatest need.
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet . . . (John 13:3-5)
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:44-45)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9)
“Father, Father, forgive.” And the miracle happens. What was impossible to forgive becomes possible, done by His power in me. The place of fear has been filled with His presence, the opportunity to forgive transformed into a chance to love Him. I may struggle again, may be back to crying, “Father, forgive.” But for this moment, my prayer, Jesus’ prayer in me, has been heard and answered by our Father, and I am free and full of joy.