Extreme grace can seem such a faraway concept. Until it happens to you.
I always used to think that forgiveness was some sort of emotional or psychological state. It was real, no doubt, but it took place mostly in my head. I confess my sins, I hear the absolution, I believe it, and then comfort sets in so I can get on with my life. In my church we say a liturgy of confession and forgiveness every Sunday, a weekly routine of scrubbing away our sins. We all confess silently before God, and then the pastor proclaims us absolved in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Usually, that is enough.
But what happens when it isn't? What happens when something weighs so heavily on my heart that I just can't muster the faith to believe that my Lord is carrying the burden now and not me? What if telling myself to believe the words doesn't work? What if I don't forgive myself and therefore refuse to let God forgive me either? What if secretly I doubt the forgiveness? What if I have grown so accustomed to the presence of this sin that I can't imagine life without it? What if the jealous old Adam in me is hanging on to the sin like an inverted life-raft and someone else has to come along and tear it away from him? What if a state of mind isn't enough, isn't real enough?
For a long time there was a sin that gripped my heart and I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't will it away and I couldn't believe in forgiveness enough to ignore it. It wasn't a very dramatic sin; in fact, it really wasn't very interesting at all. But it afflicted me because I wasn't the one to suffer most from its results, but someone else who was very dear to me. A couple years ago I had a beloved friend who became a so-called neo-pagan. This fateful move on her part was so serious that it threw the continuance of our long-term friendship into question. We negotiated for several months and got nowhere. By the end it became clear that she was going to force me into choosing between her and God, whether or not I agreed with the choice as she posed it. What could I do? I chose God. And that was the end of our friendship.
At first glance it doesn't look like I was terribly guilty of a grave sin; maybe it even looks kind of heroic. How often do we contemporary western Christians get the chance to make such a big sacrifice for the Lord, after all? And I do agree that, even though it was about the most devastatingly difficult thing I ever did in my life, it was the right thing to do (though, in a way, the only thing to do). If I had to do it over again, nothing significant would change.
But it was all the subtle things that, after two years, finally caught up with me. I started to notice that this lost friendship of mine always came up in conversation with my parents when I went home over break; that sooner or later I always felt the need to tell my newer friends the awful tale; that the mere mention of things pagan and neo-pagan made my flesh crawl; that I had recurring dreams in which she and I would meet, chat, plan to do something together, and then realize with horror that nothing had been resolved and we would have to part again. Why after two years did I still think of her every day? Why hadn't my panic over the state of her soul subsided over time? Why did I so fear the possibility of running into her when I drove through the town we grew up in, and why did I imagine that if she saw me again her only response would be to spit in my face? Why did I care so much? And why did this feeling resemble, of all things ... guilt?
The answer is that, for all the initial assurance I was given that I had done the right thing, the time had come for me to recognize my failures in the situation. The failures didn't negate what I had done right, but I needed to see the impurity of my own heart even in doing the right thing. I had failed in offering her the promise of salvation through the Gospel. I had failed in compassion during the difficult year that turned her towards neo-paganism. I had failed by my fury at her apostasy. I had failed in the last letter I wrote to her, too short and to-the-point, too angry to offer explanations, too sure of itself to exhibit the patience and gentleness that Christ had shown me. I had failed my best friend, and in so doing began to wonder if her ongoing estrangement from her savior was somehow my own fault.
Sometime after midterms in the spring all these realizations came raining down on me like little droplets of molten lead. I felt attacked and invaded by my obsession with these sins and finally it occurred to me for just about the first time in my life that maybe I needed some help. A psychologist? I wondered, but I couldn't really imagine what good that would do. I'd just have to talk and talk about it all over again, and the fact is that I had talked myself blue in the face about the matter and it didn't help. Nor would it help to analyze my feelings afresh. I already knew perfectly well what I thought and felt about the matter. The problem was that, even after I had gotten a handle on the thoughts and feelings, they still wouldn't go away. In the end it was my mom (who by then had heard the re-hashing of the details of the story more than anyone else) who suggested that I do something really old-fashioned. She said I should go to a pastor, confess to him directly, and receive the words of absolution personally. Like most (if not all) Protestant churches, mine makes no requirement of private confession, but our church teaching says that it is a wonderful thing for a troubled conscience. Under those circumstances I thought I qualified, and I decided to pursue it.
The pastor I turned to was a friend of mine from school who was getting his Ph.D. in Old Testament. His name is Rolf, he comes from solid Norwegian stock in Minnesota, and he is the father of quite possibly one of the cutest little girls on the planet. I liked him as soon as I met him because he seemed to have as many opinions as I did, and maybe even more. There is a very distinct no-nonsense quality to Rolf too. When he preaches he will say the most astounding things – for instance, that the Jewish teacher Jesus was the Son of God and rose from the dead to give us eternal life – completely matter-of-factly. He doesn't get emotionally overwrought or try to persuade his congregation with fabulous rhetoric. He just proclaims the Gospel, plain and simple, and trusts the Holy Spirit to do the rest. So even though I felt mildly ridiculous asking him to listen to the story of a quarrel between two immature young women (however high the stakes), he agreed to do so in all seriousness and we made an appointment to meet.
As it turned out, we actually had two appointments. The first one was more or less what I expected. I told him the story of what happened, stopping to blow my nose occasionally when my tears got the better of me, and he listened. Mostly he listened. He also asked a few very tough questions about my role in the situation – if I was going to confess my sins, his reasoning seemed to be, then I'd better get all of them out. It was a good purge, so to speak, and somehow felt better than before because I'd done so in front of an official voice of the church. But for all the confession today, he said, we would wait till next week to do the absolution.
When we met again the next week I was already feeling lighter at heart and looking forward to what would happen. After I got there we talked about this and that for a few minutes and then he said, "Are you ready?"
I was, I supposed, as ready as I would ever be. But I got some tissues out just to make sure.
He said he was going to read to me from the Gospel according to St. John, 21:19-23. It goes like this in the NRSV:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
I listened hard and nodded when he was done. He said, "Do you know what that means?"
I fumbled a bit and said something about the peace I would feel when I had been forgiven. I had the feeling it was silly psychobabble but nothing else came to mind.
"No," he said, matter-of-factly as usual. "It doesn't really matter to me one way another whether you feel any peace of mind. That's all a head game. This is far more serious."
I began to get a little nervous. "OK," I finally said. "What does it mean then?"
"It means this," Rolf answered. "I am here to speak to you on behalf of God. When I tell you that your sins are forgiven, it's as if God were speaking to you. You got that?"
I said I did.
He went on, "This means that when I tell you that your sins are forgiven, they really are gone. You can't have them anymore. They will be taken away from you permanently, and as far as God is concerned, they no longer exist on earth or in heaven. Do you understand? This is really it. When I tell you that you are forgiven, it's all over."
I just stared at him. This was a much bigger deal than I had ever imagined, much bigger than anything I could keep confined to my own brain. He was telling me that the forgiveness I get through Jesus' cross actually reconfigured the universe. And that when he proclaimed the absolution, the cosmos was actually changed. And this goes on all the time in church and we never even realize it! I was so overwhelmed I could hardly breathe.
"So are you ready?" he asked again.
Ready? I wondered. Who could ever be ready for this kind of grace? This wasn't some wishy-washy sentimentality on the part of God. This was a big event. This was something dark and ugly being ripped off of my soul by the hand of God himself. But I nodded anyway; I guess I really was as ready as I'd ever be.
"Sarah," he said, "you have made your confession before God. Do you repent of all your sins and seek forgiveness?"
"Yes," I managed to say.
"Then," he said, starting to quote from our liturgy, "Almighty God, in his mercy, has given His Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
"Amen," I said, and burst into tears all over again.
Well, as it turned out, Rolf wasn't kidding. The universe really did change for me after that. The weight fell away from my heart and I was able to go on, trusting my lost friend to be found again someday by her Savior, who leaves the 99 sheep behind just to go look for the lost hundredth. Amen. Alleluia! Amen.
Copyright 2000 Sarah E. Hinlikcy. All rights reserved.