Monday, January 15, 2024

What do we seek?

Even those who are not in any way religious value forgiveness.  Whether that is the polite and often perfunctory forgiveness given or the heartfelt forgiveness that lets go of the wrong, we could not exist as a society without forgiveness.  The shape of things apart from some form of forgiveness would be revenge and vendetta that would ultimately destroy community on every level from the family to the nation.  So when Christians speak of forgiveness, it is perhaps one appealing and appreciated perspective brought to the secular table.

We have all been moved by public acts of forgiveness.  I think of the folks at the Bible study who forgave the murder who had come to do them harm or the Amish family who forgave a driver who caused the death of children in a buggy accident.  They speak to the very core of what it means to be community and you do not have to be religious in order to appreciate the profound value forgiveness brings to us on every level of our human experience.

The one thing about the desire to be forgiven that seems so often missing in Christian conversation and which is the most profound character of both the repentance and the forgiveness given by God is not the forgiveness alone but with it the desire to be set from from the sin.  Even Christians miss this.  We tend to act as if forgiveness is merely about guilt or shame.  We hate those feelings and in our misery we cry out to be forgiven so that our guilt and shame may go away.  But the reality is also that our sins are familiar ones, the ruts of our behavior that we return to time and time again.  In the moment we may earnestly desire to be forgiven of those sins and not to be caught up in them again but, like an addiction, we find ourselves back in the House of God admitting:  Hello, my name is Larry and I am a sinner.  We deeply appreciate God's gift of forgiveness but the desire is not stemmed and the old and familiar paths of sin are not easy to shake.  We are not always sure we want to do the hard work of resisting old temptations nor are we sure we actually want to give up the sin.  The guilt -- yes; but the sin?

We come to God for forgiveness because we know it is His promise to forgive.  But as we typically do, we make it into a transaction.  It is God's job to sin and my job to give Him something to forgive.  In this way it becomes almost an easy routine to admit our sin and confess our guilt while at the same time continuing to sin that same sin without much real resistance.  We place ourselves in the same spots where temptation lures us and we know we will be forgiven so it is easy to indulge our sinful desires more than to seek or work to change them.  As in the game Monopoly, we cherish the get our of hell free card but we do not live within the veil of forgiveness -- we reach into our bag of tricks when we are caught or the guilt becomes unbearable and then go on with our lives as if nothing happened.

We tend to sin today with impunity.  We advertise our sins on social media.  We have less shame than other generations seemed to have.  Forgiveness has become cheap and easy -- the king of thing Bonhoeffer so famously called cheap grace.  So it is true that we abhor the sins of others -- the ones that offer no allure to us -- but we continue to walk in our familiar ways of sin without seeking so much repentance but an easy way out of our momentary discomfort.  In the end, we are callous to the power of those sins because we have worked out a rather easy deal with God to forgive us without requiring us to abandon or resist those sinful ways.  This is why private confession is so seldom utilized.  The general confession on Sunday morning works well for us because it does not even require us to name out loud what we have thought, said, or done wrong much less hold us accountable to another to work against those same sins.

God does not merely hate sin because of the individual transgressions themselves.  We cannot make God into a complicit agent in our own prejudice against some sins (homosexuality, for example) and our own fascination for others (cohabitation, for example).  It does not work.  Sin is sin before God.  Yet God hates what sin does more than the individual sins themselves.  This is what we often miss.  He loves us.  Because He loves us, God hates what sin has done to corrupt our desires, to weaken our wills, to make us accepting of wrong and death itself.  He laments not simply the sin but the braking of the relationship between us and Him and between each of us with the other so that marriage and family and community are broken and dying as well.  He hates the death of the promise of what we were created to be and created to do as much as He hates every other death that sin has cursed us.  Repentance is about hating the sin as God does, learning from Him what sin does to us and against us, and seeking not simply forgiveness but freedom from that sin.  

Truth told, we all confess sins we either have no intention of giving up or no desire to work hard enough to stop.  But we like forgiveness.  It allows us to keep on with our pet sins.  That is as much of a problem as the refusal to confess.  Thanks be to God that giving up sin entirely is NOT God's precondition for absolution.  God knows us even better than we know ourselves.  So repentance can never be whether or not we have stopped sinning but whether we struggle against the sin and strive within the bounds of our human frailty to resist the sin.  Confessing the same sins over and over again is not the definition of impenitence if we are struggling against the sin.  The Good Samaritan God we have does not pass us by but rescues and restores us.  Along with that He certainly bids us to go and sin no more.  While it is surely difficult for us to ascertain the heart in this matter, it is not impossible.  We are our brother's keeper and this means knowing each other well enough to hold one another accountable.  That was once the strength of a vigorous practice of private confession -- hearing the Word of God applied to us by our shepherd -- as well as speaking out loud the familiar sins that too often entice us so that they are not secret in us but also under the veil of God's Word and counsel.

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