Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Forgiveness is About Healing

People are messy, so forgiveness is messy. People are radically broken, so grace is radically healing.

By the time we get to the end of Hosea’s sordid ballad of messy romance, the prophet’s poetry has clearly connected Hosea’s stern love to God’s disposition toward us, and it has clearly connected Gomer’s wanton immorality to our predilection for idolatry. This is the Gospel: the overcoming of a commitment to sin by a commitment to forgive.

Our sin makes a cuckold of God. But the great love of our great God continues to woo us.

Here's how Eugene Peterson's The Message renders Hosea 14:1-9b:
O Israel, come back! Return to your God! You're down but you're not out.
Prepare your confession and come back to God.
Pray to him, "Take away our sin, accept our confession.
Receive as restitution our repentant prayers.
Assyria won't save us; horses won't get us where we want to go.
We'll never again say 'our god' to something we've made or made up.
You're our last hope. Is it not true that in you the orphan finds mercy?"
"I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I will make a fresh start with Israel.
He'll burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring.
He'll put down deep oak tree roots, he'll become a forest of oaks!
He'll become splendid—like a giant sequoia, his fragrance like a grove of cedars!
Those who live near him will be blessed by him, be blessed and prosper like golden grain.
Everyone will be talking about them, spreading their fame as the vintage children of God.
Ephraim is finished with gods that are no-gods.
From now on I'm the one who answers and satisfies him.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is to be found in me."
If you want to live well, make sure you understand all of this.
If you know what's good for you, you'll learn this inside and out . . .

That's beautiful stuff.

If you are a follower of Christ, you will learn this inside and out. Perhaps the hard way. But anyone who takes the risk to redeem a sinful experience will discover that God will provide “everything we need.” There is an incomprehensible healing in the incredibly disturbing experience of either receiving a great forgiveness or granting it. This is the life of grace -- the radical grace -- that God calls us into when we turn to follow his son in discipleship. It is not a feeling or a sentiment or a grand ideological philosophy; it is a quality of the heart overflowing in faith and forgiveness -- forgiveness received, leading to forgiveness given.

And this is one of the most incredible, scandalous demands Jesus makes upon us: love our neighbor -- who happens to be anybody we encounter – and love them so much that we forgive them over and over and over again. With an endless forgiveness born of an eternal grace.

It was scandalous, for instance, when Jesus went around forgiving people of their sins, because in the theological culture of that time, only God had the authority to forgive sins. So it was considered blasphemy that Jesus would act as God would. The scandal deepens, however, in the way Jesus commended everyone to forgive each other the same way, as well.

There is a great story in Mark’s Gospel that illustrates the power of God’s forgiveness:
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, "Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" -- he said to the paralytic -- "I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home."

And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!"

What an incredible scene! This is one of my favorite Gospel stories, primarily because of the audacity of the paralytic’s friends in tearing a hole in the roof to get him to Jesus. I think that in itself is a wonderful, dramatic picture of the lengths Jesus goes to to bring healing to us. Literarily, tearing the roof off the house reminds me very much of the tearing of the veil in the Holy of Holies.

But more importantly, notice also the close connection between the forgiveness and the healing. Recall the prophet Hosea in the earlier passage vividly connecting forgiveness to restoration. The forgiven will have, as Hosea puts it, “a fresh start.”

This is the true power of real forgiveness: healing. It is not about just going separate ways, it’s not just about clearing the air, it’s not just about letting bygones be bygones. It is about the restoration of something (someone!) that is, by all indications, irreparably broken.

(This is a slightly altered excerpt from a chapter titled "Jesus the Forgiver" in my manuscript-in-revision The Unvarnished Jesus.)

Obedience is About Reconciliation

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