Rethinking Forgiveness

Listen here.

A year or two ago, someone outside the church contacted me. They had come across one of my sermons, and they wanted to talk. We met, and I asked what was bothering them. “We-ell,” they said, “It’s as if you’re saying that God loves us even before we have repented.” “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” I said. “I can’t accept that,” they replied, “That’s definitely not right.”

Like this person, many of us grew up in churches which were obsessed by sin and repentance; many of us still flinch at the words. Sin was associated with fear, shame, failure, self-loathing, hellfire, and a violent and angry god. It was individualistic, never corporate; sexual, never economic; judged, and only conditionally forgiven. Repentance was the breast-beating acknowledgement of how awful we are—yet somehow it persuaded God to love us. Baptism was the get-out-of-jail free card, and salvation was all about some afterlife.

This worldview led many of us to worry continually about sin. Because even after baptism, we kept on sinning; we didn’t seem able to stop. And as we kept doing things we knew were harmful or wrong, we wondered: Was this sin, or this one, or this, forgiven? How could we be sure? We learned to watch every step, examine every action, check every thought, afraid of the God who was looming over us and waiting to pounce.

In shame and fear, we attempted anything which might turn away judgement: baptism, which many of us undertook more than once; heartfelt confessions; endless guilty secrets whispered in the dark; and effort upon effort upon effort to prove ourselves worthy. Unless, of course, like many of our friends, we dismissed Christianity altogether.

To us, indeed, John could have thundered, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Because fleeing from a wrathful god is all that we were really doing. And when we hear John’s words, we feel vindicated. It’s just as we thought: We are vipers. We are not worthy. We are not fit to be truly loved.

Yet we rarely seem to wonder who warned us about this god, nor what they were trying to achieve, nor do we wonder whose wrath we should really fear.

It is a terrible and tragic irony that we got to this point through the teachings of the church.

Now, there is no question that sin is pervasive. It is impossible to live in this world without hurting and without being hurt. Every one of us is wounded; every one of us wounds. That is a fact of life, and anyone who disagrees is either in complete denial or an idiot. What is interesting, however, is how sin sticks. Someone praises us, and we dismiss it or play it down. Someone criticises us unfairly, and we brood over it for years. We are generous without noticing; we are hurtful, and feel permanently small and mean. We remember and rehearse our pain and our shame; and gradually, as we practice these stories about who we are and how the world is, we build up a self-image founded in a narrative of sin. I’m not lovable. I’m a victim. I’m hurtful. No one appreciates me. I’m not worthy.

Worse, as we locate ourselves ever more deeply in sin-filled lives, we begin to see others through this lens. They are no longer simply people, but become oppressors, victims, competitors, existing only to flesh out and justify our worldview. In other words, people become objects, seen only in relation to our sin, our fears and our desires. Sin escalates; love shrivels up.

In this way, dwelling in sin leads to death. It slowly chokes us of meaningful relationships. It blocks us from taking responsibility for our lives. We stagnate, chained to a sense of entitlement or unworthiness or victimhood. Sin becomes armour, shielding us from God’s boundary-breaking love; we do not bear good fruit.

It is into this world of the walking dead that John erupts like thunder in the desert, offering a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. And we are so conditioned, so convinced of our unworthiness, that we hear it as a transaction. Get baptised, and then, and only then, your sins will be forgiven … for a little while. But this is not John’s message.

For he is telling us to change our mind-set. The word translated as ‘repentance’ is from a Greek word, ‘metanoia’, and it just means ‘a change of mind’. So John’s call, which is powerfully expanded by Jesus, is for us to change how we think about forgiveness.

Deeply embedded in human societies and thus in the human heart is the sense of debt. Tit for tat; an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. We say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and what we mean is that forgiveness and love must be earned. And so we strive and strive, but as long as we dwell in our narratives of sin, we remain convinced of our unworthiness. We will never feel we have earned the forgiveness we long for and know we need. We will never feel truly loved; we will never be truly free.

But Jesus, to whom John points, turns this mindset on its head. He loves sinners without limit. He forgives freely, before people even ask. And he invites people to dwell, not in sin, but in him. Repentance, then, is not what we do in order for God to love and forgive us. Instead, it’s the change of mindset which happens when we place our trust in the one who loves and forgives us freely and wholeheartedly and unconditionally; and this change of mindset enables us to accept the forgiveness which is already ours.

As our thinking shifts from a transactional view of the world to a Christ-centred grace-filled view of the world, we will begin to notice and let go of our sinful narratives of entitlement or indebtedness or unworthiness. In their place, we will find ourselves dwelling in stories of love, forgiveness, freedom and possibility. We will be able to move from focussing on sin itself to noticing and acknowledging the ways that we cling to it and allow it to shape our identities. We see how this leads us to wound, shun or shame others, as we ourselves have been wounded and shunned and shamed.

And in our newfound freedom and love, we take responsibility for these feelings, these tendencies, and these actions. We do not deny them, but we notice them, seek and offer forgiveness, and make amends. And then we move on—for God has already released us from our sin, and beckons us into a new future. In this future, God’s future, we find ourselves on paths of peace, caressed by gentle winds of freedom, walking in the company of love.

Too many of us grew up believing that sin is the roadblock to God. This is not so. Any roadblock, detour, ditch or diversion is caused not by sin itself, but by our insistence on dwelling in, clinging to, building lives rooted in narratives of sin. So change your minds! Accept God’s forgiveness! Let go of sin, and make the road straight!

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, “Whatever is genuine, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is authentic, whatever is delightful, whatever is commendable — if anything is excellent or worthy of praise — meditate on these things. [In other words, don’t remember and rehearse your pain and your shame. Instead, meditate on these things, meditate on the good.] Put into practice the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). And that is a promise.

This Advent, then, let go of sin, clear the way, straighten the path for the prince of peace: the one in whom we are pleased, so very pleased, to dwell. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Luke 3:1-8, given to Sanctuary, 9 December 2018 (Year C Advent 2, C02) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash.


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