Rethinking the Forgiveness of God

Last week we looked at confession and repentance. Confession and repentance are specific disciplines which open us up to what is perhaps the most important and difficult part of following Jesus: receiving forgiveness. So that is the focus for our first full week of Lent.

What does it mean to receive forgiveness from God? How can we better understand forgiveness and open ourselves up to it? How does this change the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, our world, and change the way we live in the world?

And here, I find myself confronting more theological baggage. Not with forgiveness itself, but with the idea of God’s forgiveness.

Immediately people may want to write me off as a heretic, but hear me out. The baggage is this:

When I was told about the forgiveness of God it usually wasn’t something that was freeing or life-giving. The idea presented was a really angry God who was looking to squash me for all the wrong doing in my life. Then Jesus comes along and says: I know they have done bad things, but punish me instead.

So God punishes Jesus instead of me and that is how I receive “forgiveness.”

But is this really forgiveness? The crime is still punished, Jesus just takes the blow instead of me.

In human terms, forgiveness releases the forgiver of the need for revenge or retribution. If the crime is punished (no matter who is punished for it) is it really considered “forgiveness”?

I have trouble with this version of God’s forgiveness. Yet, I find myself deeply aware of my need for forgiveness. And I find myself deeply aware of the forgiveness I need from God.

I have messed up God’s world, I have lived in ways other than what God intended for me to live. I am supposed to be God’s representative and I have done a poor job of reflecting who God truly is. When I hurt other people, I am hurting God’s children.

I need God’s forgiveness. I need to be released. I need a second chance. I need the healing it provides. I need Jesus.

Yet even as I type these words, I have an image of an angry God who is sitting and stewing on my sin and awfulness and when I come to ask for forgiveness, he begrudgingly offers it and hits Jesus one more time instead of me. (Cue the song: “Does he still feel the nails…?”)

So maybe a few reflections on the human act of forgiveness can help us paint a different picture. After all, the act of forgiveness is one of the most Gospel centered acts there is, so in doing it we are learning something about the nature of God.

First, I should point out there is a huge difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I do not need a response from the other person in order to forgive. Forgiveness is one-sided. Forgiveness frees me from the pain and hurt of the offending act. Reconciliation takes a lot more work. Reconciliation involves both parties responding to one another. The offended party must forgive, and the offender must accept the forgiveness and act in new ways.

If the offended party does not choose to forgive, this creates a barrier in the relationship. We may be cordial, but true relationship does not exist. Forgiveness says the offense will not stand in the way of the relationship. Unless true forgiveness takes place, there will always be the offense the forgiver can hold over the other person.

The responsibility of the offender is to receive the forgiveness, and then move toward the person in relationship. There is also an understanding that the offending behavior should not continue. The offender is released of the burden (although not necessarily the consequences) of the offense so the relationship can continue and move forward.

Now let’s apply this to God’s forgiveness. What is God’s attitude towards our offense? As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, Jesus makes a final pronouncement at the cross:

“Forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Sin is forgiven at the cross. All of the things we do to mess up God’s world and hurt other people is forgiven. Done with. Gone. There is nothing impeding your relationship with God. God is not holding on to your offense in case it needs to be used against you later, and God is not looking at the crucified Jesus and saying: “Look what you made me do.” Neither is God hoping you will work your way back into God’s good graces.

It is forgiven. The cross wipes it out. The cross makes new life and reconciliation possible.

But remember, forgiveness is one-sided. God has done God’s part. God has forgiven. So there was no reason to take out wrath on anything or anyone else. And God does not need a response from anyone in order to do this. God just does it. God does all the work of making true, genuine relationship with God possible so new life can be born. And even though humans may relapse on their forgiveness, God never will. “It is finished.” This is forgiveness.

prodigalsonrembrantfathersonBut reconciliation is another matter.

Not everyone wants to be reconciled. Some want to continue to offend. Others believe their actions have no consequences and are not in need of forgiveness. This is a refusal to accept what has already been forgiven.

Reconciliation involves both parties. Our job is to receive the forgiveness of God and determine to live in new ways.

But it is our choice.

When we respond to the forgiveness of God, we are then freed to live in new ways. We are freed from the burdens of our offenses and we now enter into new kinds of relationship with God. And this new life ends up being this beautiful and divine dance with God that is the best kind of life imaginable. We may get back out of step at times, but even the most painful of stubbed toes or stamped feet are forgiven and moved beyond in a divine embrace.

In Lent, we adjust, we move on, we become better dancers, and we find ourselves deeper in the love and forgiveness of God.

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