Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sin, Forgiveness, and Love: Part II

Read Part I of this post here.

Writing this post has been far more demanding and time-consuming than I anticipated, for each line carries some heavy complexities. But then, this is only a blogpost, not a treatise, curriculum, or book. So here goes:

Restore me to you
Christians believe that we are forgiven sinners. When we sin and are sorry for it, we believe that God forgives us. “We have complete confidence” and are “sincere of heart and filled with faith, our hearts sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience” (Hebrews 10:19, 22). Yet I have found that although many believers acknowledge that this is true, they rarely feel it. We are often told, even by experienced spiritual directors, that feelings are comforting but not strictly necessary, and that assenting to the belief is most important.

This is true, but I rather think that consistent failure to feel what we believe is indicative of something that needs attention. Doesn’t the assurance of being truly loved fill us with joy? If it didn’t, wouldn’t that be a sign that we didn’t really believe or trust that the love was genuine? Believers are to be confident that we are loved and worthwhile people in spite of our sin.

Our confidence to relate to others, especially those against whom we have sinned and to whom we owe a moral debt, can only come from being restored to God who strengthens us and gives us grace to seek reconciliation with others. Without that, the best we can do is stumble through with very mixed results. Yet we are also taught by Jesus himself to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—that is, our understanding of and ability to accept forgiveness from God is linked to our experience of forgiveness at the human level.

Grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended
This is by far the most difficult, challenging, and risky part of the entire process of sin, forgiveness, and love. Although reconciling with others is a command given by Jesus in Matthew 18:15ff, I think that it is rarely followed. Whenever a serious sin has done considerable damage in a relationship, it is complex and costly to try to effect reconciliation, for doing so is completely dependent upon others who are sinners themselves.

Those who ask forgiveness put themselves into the power of others, and Jesus knows well that that power will not always be wielded in mercy and love, but sometimes in vengeance—which is another sin in the sad cycle of human relationships. Since no sin is solitary, being hurt by someone else’s sin stirs up other sins that have caused wounds. (For more on this subject see the post called With His Stripes We Are Healed.) That can inspire a variety of different responses that can make reconciliation very difficult, requiring generous servings of humility and courage.

Yet Jesus ordered us to seek reconciliation with anyone whom we have offended—and, for that matter, anyone who has offended us. In spite of all the complications, if two people desire reconciliation, they can find it, with or without the involvement of others, as long as they are willing to recognize and accept that reconciliation in this life can never be free of “fuzzy edges”. In fact, Jesus provides no other option for achieving reconciliation.

Through all the complications, it is vital to know that no merely human circumstances have veto power over forgiveness. If the offended party is unavailable—long missing, dead, or unwilling to reconcile for any number of possible reasons—this can complicate matters but can never blockade the peace that God promises in Jesus. Any individual who sincerely seeks forgiveness may have it, with or without the participation of the offended party. (I’ll post more on this topic in a few days.)

True love is shown when there is genuine desire for genuine reconciliation, for such love is powerfully made known when the sinner knows he hasn’t earned it but it is given just the same. This is where love is proven. I suspect that love is perhaps most truly shown in such circumstances. This kind of love is akin to the love Jesus commands us to show to those who cannot pay us back. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me
When we ask for forgiveness, we are indeed asking someone to give us something that may be very difficult to give. In some ways, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to grant it. One has much to gain but maybe little to lose by asking.

Yet Jesus has made it clear, very clear, that our own forgiveness is dependent upon our forgiving those who sin against us. Many, many people have sinned against me, sometimes grievously. I’m sure that every priest can say the same thing. We are often unjustly the targets of people’s angers and hurts; it is part of our ministry. Even though I know this, I have been angry for many years at some people for savage hurts they have done me.

Yet I must forgive—certainly for my own ability to be forgiven, but also for the sake of those who have sinned against me. Jesus himself, and his first martyr Stephen after him, prayed for those who were unjustly killing them at the time they were doing the praying. (See Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60.) Forgiving others is a critical precondition for receiving forgiveness for our own sins—not like the turning of a switch, but as a condition into which we grow over time.

Give me desire and grace for amendment of life
Once we recognize that we have sinned, , we must set about doing whatever we can to prevent a recurrence of the sin. To achieve this, human effort and divine power must work together; hence “amendment of life” requires both desire for it and grace. Grace provided without desire for it is rare but possible, but is intended to build desire without which the grace may be unproductive. An example is the man by the pool of Bethesda whom Jesus healed and then called to forsake his sin. (See John 5:1-14). As for desire without grace... well, there is no such thing, though grace may be delayed until the timing is right. I do not believe that grace will be denied if genuine desire is there.

One may think of the broken bone that, immediately after the injury, hurts and hampers normal activity, yet eventually grows to be stronger than before. Most leaders of the people of God were displayed as great sinners: Noah, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. Paul even boasted of it—boasting not of his sin, but of the grace of God that was manifested to all because of his sin. “‘My grace in enough for you: for power is in full stretch in weakness.’ It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 19b).

This is the conclusion of the well-known passage about Paul’s thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7ff)—probably either a chronic illness or a besetting sin that God refused to remove. It was Paul’s own weakness—whatever it was—that revealed to him the powerful grace of God.

We must couple John’s, “No one who is a child of God sins” (1 John 3:9a) with Paul’s, “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This is far too complex a matter for reflection on a blogpost that has already grown long, though I think that a good place to start would be to consider what is in the heart of the believer. When we truly and genuinely desire holiness, to love God and our neighbor, our sins will be kind of like “exhaust” on the journey, i.e. not willfully evil or deliberately injurious to others as the primary pattern of life. That is, they are evidence of weakness and imperfection rather than corruption that has been embraced while God is rejected.

Let me live in joy
The final stage in knowing the infinite love of God through the process of renewal after sin is to accept it all humbly and gladly, with childlike simplicity. We cannot do this, of course. Writing the points of these two blogposts down as if they were points in an instruction manual makes it come across as rather artificial, and of course no real relationship can be like that. We must always live with rough edges, incompletenesses, anomalies, and imperfections. God knows that.

Where John taught that “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18a), we have to hope that maybe pretty good love reduces fear, and that we will grow step and step, stage by stage, seeking the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) but which is granted only by the will of God. (See Hebrews 10:10).

Finally we must believe that, “No created thing whatever will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:39). By the grace and in the economy of God, therefore, even our sins and the sins of others against us can lead us and them more and more deeply into the fathomless depths of joy and peace and truth and love. In this life, these will always be mixed with pain and grief, but at the end we may expect that God “will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4) and our joy “no one will take” from us (John 16:22b).

1 comment:

George said...

Thank you so very much for posting this series, Father.

What you have written is profound. Rarely does one find a discussion of these matters which so well appreciates the complexities involved. And yet you do not lose sight of the whole point of all of this. Each of your individual reflections serves to deepen our understanding of the one thing.

I await with much anticipation your third installment.