Forgiveness As Event
Long ago, I learned to appreciate confessional practice of the church. It is this: that once a sin has been openly acknowledged, penance done, and absolution pronounced, one is never allowed to bring that particular sin up again in the confessional. This is done to underline the finality of the forgiving transaction. Once a sin has been dealt with in this way, the issue is settled, the account closed, the problem resolved, and while there will be future sins to deal with, this particular sin can be put behind a person once and for all. This whole practice is a way of affirming that forgiveness is an event, not just an idea. A tangible process that genuinely alters the shape of reality.
As I pondered the concreteness of this way of dealing with human imperfection, I had two distinct impressions. The first was that this understanding of forgiveness is precisely in accord with the teachings of the Bible. All through this Document, forgiveness is something that happens, not just something that is said or thought. An act of pardon is just as real an event as an act of sin. We accept the fact that when we do something wrong, that specific act makes a difference in the situation about us. Circumstances are altered by our misdeed. By the same token, the Bible claims that when we confess that wrong and allow God to deal with it in terms of mercy, an event every bit as tangible takes place and once again the circumstances of our lives are genuinely altered.
The Scriptures that we read earlier in the service both express this primal truth. From the One Hundred and Third Psalm we heard God described as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love." It is not His nature to deal with us according to our sins, but rather according to His mercy, and as the climactic image of the passage, we were told that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us" in the act of forgiveness. This is a very interesting poetic image, given the particular shape of our globe. As you know, the distance from the north to the south can be measured in miles, because here are poles at each of these extremities. This means that if you started flying in a northward direction, you could go only so far and then you would be traveling south. There is a limit to northness and southness. However, there is no East Pole or West Pole. If you could start flying either east or west and had the fuel, you could fly forever and forever and still be going in the same direction. And what does the Psalmist say? "God removes our sins from us." Not as far is the north is from the south-that is something you can measure, but as far as the east is from the west, infinity itself! This is a graphic way of saying that when God deals with our sin, a radical removal takes place. They are taken away from us as far as the mind can imagine. They are no longer around to burden us. They are removed, for you see, forgiveness is an event, not just an idea. It is something that occurs.
The other image of the morning came out of the ministry of Jesus when a paralytic was let down through the roof of a house in Capernaum. Here is a man so consumed by guilt and failure that he had lost all the powers of his personhood. He could no longer even move his little finger. He was so eaten up with self contempt and the fear of failure that he had become utterly immobilized. It was as if a thousand pound weight were pinning him down and he could not move a muscle. Jesus took one look at this man and said: "My son, your sins are forgiven. I hereby lift the weight of guilt off of you. What you have been need not be the measure of what you can be. The past does not have to define the future. God hereby gives you another chance on the same basis as He gave you your first chance; namely, beyond your deserving it. Arise, take up your bed and walk," and the man did just that! Having been released from the crushing load that was sapping all his energy, he got up and began to do what he had not been able to do before. Here, once again, is an image of radicality, of something happening that unleashed new possibilities. Jesus did something for this man that enabled him to begin to do different things- this is what forgiveness as event is all about. It is not just "an idea off in the blue"- is something that happens which alters the whole shape of reality.
Here, then, are two illustrations of how the Bible speaks of forgiveness as event, and I could have picked many more, for the Document is full of them. And I was reminded of all this when I heard about the practice of not mentioning sins again once they have been confessed. This really is consistent with the Biblical emphasis on the finality of forgiveness. When God handles our sins, something does happen-He removes our sins from us. He releases us from this crushing burden, and this is the great good news the confessional churches have understood and embodied..
In the great upheaval back in the sixteenth century known as the Protestant Reformation, the confessional was one of the things that got rejected. Let it be said that the Roman Catholic Church had become quite careless and even self serving in the way all this was handled, and Martin Luther had reason to be outraged and say: "Out with the whole confessional routine." However, as so often happens in radical reform, "the baby got pitched out in the bath water" and a way of making the experience of forgiveness tangible got lost. Mercy became an idea more than an event, and the process was conceptualized more than concretized. Protestants talked a great deal about the forgiveness of God, but we forgot how to do confession and repentance and the receiving of forgiveness. As a result, for many now in the Free Church tradition, the ability to deal realistically with our imperfections has been lost.. The Church is good at arousing guilt, but not in showing how to handle his problem redemptively. Thus we confess our sins in private and rational ways, but have no way of coming to some clear cut resolution about our guilt. I have known people to agonize over the same sin for twenty five years, coming forward to re dedicate their lives again and again to no avail. It is like taking the garbage out to the curb and then bringing it right back to the house again. We have no processes of elimination whereby imperfection can be dealt with and gotten rid of. This is our special Protestant agony-we have forgotten how to make the act of forgiveness an event that really changes things, not just empty words we talk about.
I sensed this fact early in my ministry and across the years I have worked for ways to materialize the event of forgiveness so people could not just gather up their garbage but really and truly take it somewhere and leave it and it be "off their backs" so that a new future was possible. I remember going to the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Kentucky where a church member of mine was a patient. I found this one as shattered and immobilized by guilt as that paralytic who had been let down in front of Jesus. His whole life had been a succession of failures. He had run away from home in high school. He had flunked out of college twice before finally graduating. He had married, but repeatedly been unfaithful to his wife. He had embezzled some money from his employer and was now out of a job. The accumulation of all this had so overwhelmed him that he wound up in the hospital, utterly immobilized. He had tried across the years to deal with his guilt, but none of his methods had worked effectively. For example, he had gone through a period of blaming all his problems on his parents and on society, but eventually this broke down, for it was neither reality based nor does this sort of thing do anything constructive about the essential problems. He had also tried to punish himself, what Myron Madden calls "re enacting the atonement rather than accepting it." But this, too, only made matters worse. How do you ever know what is enough in terms of self punishment? This young man had almost destroyed his body trying "to make up" for his own sinfulness. When I found him that day, he had plunged into almost total depression, there seeming to be no meaningful future left for him. As we began to talk, I found that he had had almost no experiential knowledge of forgiveness. As a child, there had been no mercy in his home. When he did anything wrong, he had not only been punished vindictively, but the misdemeanor was remembered and constantly thrown up in his face. Thus, the challenge before me was awesome indeed, and in the course of several visits across the space of many weeks, I tried to do three things. First, I had to introduce him intellectually to the whole concept of Divine mercy. On more than one occasion I attempted "to preach the Good News" to this one, even though there was no pulpit and the congregation numbered only one. I told this one of a mercy that is everlasting and beyond understanding. I spoke of a God Who in the beginning had given us the gift of life apart from our deserving, and Who again and again, even in the face of our sin, was willing to regive the gift on the same terms.
I tried to help him see that just as our good deeds had not created our relationship to God in the first place, so our bad deeds did not have the power to abolish that relationship in the end. I reminded him that God is like a loving parent to us and that He accepts the fact that we do not begin life full grown, but make our way toward maturity through many failings and fallings. Just as no good human parent would give up on their child because he falls a lot as he begins to learn to walk, so God does not give up on us because of our many sins. His patience is inexhaustible, which I tried to illustrate by the event of Easter. Even after the world had done what it did to His beloved Son, God did not give up on us. He sent that Boy back three days later "to keep on keeping on" in our behalf! And then I spoke to this one of forgiveness as an event. I read to him the promise that if we were willing to do something about our sins, so is God. If we acknowledge our sins: that is, admit that they were ours and that we were sorry for them and that we do not want to go on living this way, and hand all of that over to God, then- miracle of miracles-He is willing to do something -to take them away just like the garbage collector who comes down the street and takes away our refuse. H.R. Mackintosh describes the process of forgiveness as "first owning and then disowning our sins." It is the specific acknowledgment of concrete acts for which we are genuinely sorry. None of this vague business of "If I have wounded any soul today, if I have caused another one to stray." That kind of confession evades the real issue. We must concretely and specifically own the sins that we have committed and are ashamed of and want to be rid of, and then in truth disown them; that is, pass them over into Hands that are mercifully willing to take these burdens off of us. When we are willing to do this, something really occurs-burdens shift, and just like the paralytic before Jesus, things become possible for the future that never could have been without this release.
This is the conceptual background I tried to share with this one. and then lest it all remain in the realm of ideas, I invited him to do something about his burden if he were willing. I suggested one afternoon that he take some paper and in unhurried fashion write down every concrete thing he had done that bothered his conscience. "Whatever brings you a sense of shame as you remember it, whatever you have done that you do not want to go on doing-write this down, specify it, get it out in the open and then we will offer this to God." He did this swiftly, with tears at times with real bodily anguish. I watched as this burdened soul spilled out his life not in generalities but in specifics, and it grew page after page. When this was done at last, I invited him to read these things out loud so that he could be assured then even when another knew all about him, he would not be rejected and he did this. Then came the climax. We took those sheets of paper, formally offered them to God in an act of total abandonment, then I took a match and in his presence burned each sheet and let him see them go up in smoke. Then together we went into the bathroom and flushed remains down the toilet as I said: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness...as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us....my son, your sin is forgiven. Arise, up your bed and walk." And there, in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, I saw forgiveness happen. I shall never forget it as long as I live. One human being realizing that the mercy of God is not just an idea, but an event-something God will do for us if we will let Him. Something happened to that young man that day every bit as real as the sins he had committed in the past. He was given the gift of life over again on the same terms that it had been given him in the beginning; namely, beyond his deserving. At last he had found Mercy is the answer to our human imperfection.
And as soon as this was done, he and I set about to plan concrete things he could begin to do, not in order to earn God's forgiveness, but in gratitude for having received this gift. Right here is the secret of true penance. We do not perform certain acts in order to get God to forgive us. Having been forgiven, however, we want to start rebuilding things at the very place where once we tore them down, and this is what this forgiven man began to plan. Not long after that he was released from the hospital and started a new profession, and across the years we have kept in touch. What happened in the hospital that day really has made a difference, which leads me to ask: "How can forgiveness become more than a word or idea to us? How can it become event, something that happens and is every bit as tangible in terms of consequence as the event of sin?
Let's face it-coping with guilt is everybody's problem. As Carlyle Marney says: "It is too late to worry about innocence. We have a different problem-that of sin and failure and imperfection- the things we have done that we should not have done, the things that we have left undone that we should have done." What are we going to do about these things? That is the issue. And of all the alternatives before us. I know of none that can do what everlasting Mercy can do with what we should not have done. Here is a way of getting rid of our guilt, of being freed of the past so that the future can be different and better. It is as tangible a transaction as acknowledging the garbage in the house, gathering it up and taking it out to the curb and turning it over there to another. Listen-if we will confess our sins-own them and repent of them and hand them over, God is willing to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He will remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.
0 that we could believe that forgiveness is an event, not just an idea, and in believing, put it into practice!
Well, will you, now?
Dr. John R. Claypool