Sunday, April 23, 2017

How Much Does It Have To Hurt?

So ... how much do you need to hurt before God will forgive you?

It’s a good question. I have a friend who holds himself responsible for a tragedy that occurred a few years ago. I’m not even sure he’s actually guilty of the sin he believes he committed: when others make choices so fast you don’t have time to think of how to respond until it’s too late, how much responsibility is yours and how much is theirs?

The Lord knows. I wouldn’t dare guess.

The Formula for Forgiveness

But that doesn’t matter to my friend. The whole experience knocked him off his pins spiritually for a while. It still eats at him. If making oneself utterly miserable is part of some formula for obtaining forgiveness, he’s more than put in his time, at least in my estimation.

But he doesn’t think so.

So … how much agonizing is enough? When will he feel forgiven?

I came across this quote from a “church father” by the name of Ambrose (styled ‘St Ambrose’ by some) on the subject of seeking forgiveness. He’d been reading 2 Corinthians and considering the situation of a Christian put out of the Church for ongoing and unrepented sin.

Ambrose, like my friend, seems to feel there is value in maximizing how terrible you feel about sin:
“If, then, any one, having committed hidden sins, shall nevertheless diligently do penance, how shall he receive those rewards if not restored to the communion of the Church? I am willing, indeed, that the guilty man should hope for pardon, should seek it with tears and groans, should seek it with the aid of the tears of all the people, should implore forgiveness; and if communion be postponed two or three times, that he should believe that his entreaties have not been urgent enough, that he must increase his tears, must come again even in greater trouble, clasp the feet of the faithful with his arms, kiss them, wash them with tears, and not let them go, so that the Lord Jesus may say of him too: His sins which are many are forgiven, for he loved much.”
— Ambrose
I can only conclude that if Ambrose felt that “penance”, “tears”, clinging to the “feet of the faithful”, “trouble”, “entreaties”, “groans” and “imploring” are necessary to obtain forgiveness from fellow human beings and brothers and sisters in Christ, he may well have imagined something similar is necessary for a believer to obtain the forgiveness of God himself. I have not been able to find him quoted on that subject so I can’t say for sure.

Maybe he even believed a similar emotional state necessary to salvation, for all I know.

Olympic-Level Groveling

Ambrose’s notions about forgiveness seem awfully similar to those of many modern Christians: that obtaining forgiveness is a function of how bad you feel about your sin and how effectively you grovel.

But whatever you think of Ambrose, he seems to have misinterpreted his only appeal to scripture on the subject. He speaks of agonizing and supplication “… so that the Lord Jesus may say of him too: His sins which are many are forgiven, for he loved much.”

I think Ambrose may have things backward here. He seems to be saying that forgiveness is a consequence of “love” (assuming groveling is evidence of it), when what the Lord taught in the passage in Luke 7 that Ambrose is referencing is actually the opposite: that love is a consequence of forgiveness.

So what did the Lord actually teach?

An Alabaster Flask

The incident in question takes place in the home of a Pharisee named Simon, where the Lord and his disciples are guests. A woman, called a “sinner” (from which most conclude that she had been formerly engaged in prostitution) comes in with an alabaster flask of ointment, pours it on the Lord’s feet and begins to both kiss them and wipe them with her hair.

If you want to grovel, that would certainly be one way to go about it.

Simon objects to the Lord allowing the woman to touch him, so the Lord tells Simon the following parable:
“ ‘A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.’ And he said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ ”
Then the Lord applies the parable to Simon and the woman.

She Loved Much

He reminds Simon that he has hardly been the world’s most dutiful host (which, from a Pharisee, was probably not a surprise) while the woman has unrelentingly demonstrated her love from him from the moment she arrived by her humble attention to his physical needs. Then he adds the statement Ambrose is referencing:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much.”
It seems to me here that far from saying — like Ambrose — that the woman’s excess of love caused the Lord to forgive her, Jesus is actually saying that being forgiven caused her to love. The intensity of love in her response was the evidence of her appreciation of having a pretty filthy slate wiped clean. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Lord goes on to say of Simon, “But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Not “He who loves a little will be forgiven a little”.

Ambrose sees the woman’s groveling as resulting in her forgiveness. But it seems much more consistent with the parable and that Lord’s subsequent statement that the significant number and sort of sins she had been forgiven led the woman to become excessively appreciative and loving.

I don’t think I would try to make a case for seeking ‘emotional’ forgiveness on the basis of this incident.

Let’s Not Get Overwhelmed

While Ambrose may have felt that all manner of emotional displays of repentance are necessary for a Christian who has sinned to be restored to the fellowship of other believers, when Paul instructs the Corinthian believers on how to respond to the repentance of the man who had been ‘put out’, he says the following:
“… you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”
Paul doesn’t seem to see the value in “excessive sorrow” that Ambrose or my friend do. Once repentance is evident, he gives every indication that the thing to do is to turn the page and move on: “Reaffirm your love for him”, he says. Then he goes on to tell us that “the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death”.

Emotional displays and true repentance are not the same thing. People can make a lot of noise about their guilt without changing their ways or genuinely turning from a sinful path. Esau is evidence of this: he traded away his blessing and later “sought it with tears”, but found “no chance to repent”. Tears and repentance are not synonymous, and only one leads to forgiveness.

There’s nothing wrong from learning from our failures. It would be sad if we didn’t.

But scripture does not teach us to wallow in them.

1 comment :

  1. This is a really, really important topic, Tom. I hope a lot of people read what you've written. And I hope they read carefully.

    I know a ton of people who are struggling with the question, "What do I have to do so that God can forgive me?" They're miserable, and they can't believe that forgiveness is available for free. They imagine that God has some stake in seeing them be miserable first.

    But sometimes also, some people just don't want to give up the thing they're doing. And they figure if God forgives them, then they'll have to straighten up. And they're right.