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Finding Peace Through Letting Go
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Adam Hamilton
All rights reserved.
THE DIVINE ANSWER
* * *
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:1-5
To all of the customers of the local florist who got sneezing powder in their flowers last Tuesday, I apologize. You were really not the intended victims. I just wanted to make you angry at the florist, my stingy employer. I wasn't trying to hurt you. Bill
I'm sorry. You were waiting for the car to get out of the parking place so you could back in. I slid in frontward—I had to do this because I was desperate to get into the store so I could use the men's room, and there were no other spaces. My apologies. I hope you read this and understand. Driver of gray Honda.
To all my high school classmates, I am so sorry for those mornings when I came to school without brushing my teeth. I don't know where I got the idea that if I didn't eat, I didn't need to brush. I know you tried to hint, but I didn't "get it."
For all the things that happened to you as a kid that I never knew about. Maybe you were told not to tell me, but I should have been there for you, and you should have been able to tell me anything. For the fact that you weren't and I wasn't, I am truly sorry. Mom
Recently, I discovered several websites on which people can anonymously post apologies like those above. Some who post on these sites apparently don't know how to reach those they have wronged. In the case of others, the person wronged is deceased. Still others seem unwilling or not yet prepared to apologize directly to the individuals. Some of the postings are humorous; some are far more weighty. I think all of us can find a part of ourselves in one of them.
In a sermon called "To Whom Much is Forgiven," twentieth-century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich offers a perspective that speaks to people such as the above, and to all of us. Tillich wrote, "Forgiveness is an answer, the divine answer, to the question implied in our existence" (The New Being [New York: Scribner's, 1955]).
I would suggest that there are at least three questions "implied in our existence," to which forgiveness is God's answer. For example, in the apology of the mother, if you are the child who has been wounded, who perhaps experienced abuse when you were little, and whose mother did nothing to stop it, the question implied is How do I keep bitterness, anger, hate, or the desire for revenge from consuming me? If you are the mother who feels great guilt because you didn't step in to stop the abuse, there are perhaps two questions implied: How can I be reconciled to the one I wronged? and How can my burden of guilt be removed?
Every one of us asks questions like these, and God's answer to each of them is forgiveness. While abuse may not have been a part of our story, at some point we've been wronged, at some point we've failed to intervene to stop someone else from being wronged, and in one way or another we've all wronged others. If we are not to spend our lives stumbling in the dark as wounded, angry human beings, we must know and carry with us the answer—God's answer: forgiveness.
MAKING SENSE OF SIN
Making sense of forgiveness means talking about sin, a word certain to make some people cringe. It brings to mind preachers who use the word to beat people down, or to frighten and intimidate children, applying it to all sorts of acts that aren't really sin, from going to the movies to learning to dance. But understood correctly, the concept of sin is one that serves a very useful purpose in any discussion of forgiveness.
The Greek and Hebrew words most often translated as sin in the Bible refer to "missing the mark" (think archery and an arrow that misses the target) or "straying from the path" (picture someone wandering off a trail and getting hopelessly lost). The implication is that there is a mark, an ideal, or a path that we are meant to follow in order to have a proper relationship with others and with God. We are meant to love. We are meant to do justice. We are meant to care for people and put their needs before our own. We are meant to tell the truth, to be faithful, to do the kind and loving thing. If we did these things all the time, there would be no need for forgiveness.
I suspect that all of us, whether we have any religious faith or not, could agree that there is a way we're meant to live, an ideal path we should take. We know, too, that most of us struggle in walking that path. We stray at times. In fact, it seems to be the human condition that we stray too often and too easily. We use the word temptation to describe those things that draw us away.
The Bible opens with a story of temptation, one that is the archetype or pattern for how we human beings have struggled and succumbed ever since. In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God offered paradise if this first couple would obey a simple rule: don't eat from one tree. They could eat anything else they wanted, but, essentially, God said to them, "This one tree will bring harm to you and your offspring. This is the path: enjoy everything, and be fruitful and multiply. Just avoid that tree right over there." But, of course, that was the one tree they came most desperately to desire.
Some readers take the story literally, some figuratively, but nearly all agree that it points to our struggle with rules, with limits, and with the path. The story also points to the truth that, from the beginning, God gave humanity a profound, wonderful, and dreadful gift—freedom to walk in the path, or stray from it.
Sometimes, our straying from the path is inadvertent. I think of the last time I was pulled over for speeding. (Yes, it has happened more than once.) I truly did not mean to be going so fast. I told the officer as I handed him my license, "I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention." That actually did not help my cause. Rather, he suggested that my comment was worthy of a second ticket!
On other occasions, we know the path but make a conscious decision to stray from it. We realize the path calls us to be honest, but being honest might lose us the deal, or cost us more taxes, or embarrass us. So, we step off the path, hoping no one finds out and planning to get back on somewhere down the way.
Yes, Adam and Eve's story is our story. Healthy autonomy turns to unhealthy ego. I become the most important thing in my life, the thing around which the entire universe revolves. I live my life with blinders on, thinking only, "How can I be happy? How can I be safe?" I begin to care less and less about you as I go after what benefits me. I ignore your feelings while seeking to avoid suffering myself. I fail to do the right and loving thing, and sometimes do the hurtful thing in my relationships with others. The more that happens, the further I get from the path. And when I hurt you, you may well hurt me, meaning we both move further from the ideal, and the gap between us widens. The distance between where we are and where we are meant to be, along with the things we have done to create that distance and the hurt it has caused for others, is all part of what we call sin. We feel sin as a wall around us, or a gulf between us and others. When we decide at last to close that gap, to heal the breach, we must seek out the answer God has provided: forgiveness.
But what is it we are actually looking for when we seek forgiveness? We are not asking the other person to excuse what we've done, but rather to pardon us. We are looking for reconciliation, for the restoration of our relationship. We are asking for that person to release the right to retaliate. When my wife LaVon and I have conflict, often the result of something insensitive I have said or done, my request for forgiveness is a plea that she not hold my sin between us, separating us from each other, but that she break down the wall, so I might be in right relationship with her again.
In seeking and finding forgiveness, we experience pardon and restoration, which offer a new beginning, and we return to the path.
THE BURDEN OF GUILT AND SEPARATION FROM GOD
There is another party who is affected by any sin that we commit against another. When our action or inaction hurts someone, we're also wounding our relationship with God, for it is God's path we stray from. It may take time, but at some point, that additional breach begins to make itself known. As our sins pile up and the gap increases between the ideal and the actual, we begin to feel further and further removed from God. We pray, but our prayers don't seem to go anywhere. We no longer feel God's presence. After a while, we may wonder if God even exists. We struggle. Life becomes harder and harder, because we're not on the path God intended human beings to walk. The psalmist reflected the spiritual impact of our straying from God's path in the seven so-called Penitential Psalms. You can feel the angst the psalmist felt at being separated from God, and you can feel the weight of that sin. It is a weight we call guilt. In Psalm 32, part of which opens this chapter, the psalmist describes the feeling of alienation from God:
For day and night your hand
was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as
by the heat of summer.
Psalm 38, another of the Penitential Psalms, says, "My guilt has overwhelmed me / like a burden too heavy to bear" (NIV).
The idea of guilt being a burden is a powerful metaphor, and one I find very helpful. When we don't ask God's forgiveness, when we don't seek to be reconciled through repentance, we carry the guilt—the weight—of each and every sin with us. We may not even recognize it at first, since some of our sins seem fairly small to us. It was the way we made just a little insult or a tiny jab as we walked away from someone. It was how we treated the person at the cash register or the way we snapped at our spouse. Sometimes sins are more serious. They're the intentionally hurtful things we say and do over and over again. We carry around these sins, big and small, and as long as we don't confess and repent of them, they remain in our souls.
I sought to illustrate this idea to my congregation the last time I preached on forgiveness. I had a table on the chancel, covered in rocks of all shapes and sizes. Some rocks were small, just pebbles; others could be weighed in pounds. I had a backpack that represented the way we carry our sin and guilt with us. I took two handfuls of pebbles and named them things like Harsh Words, An Irritating Glance, Speeding, Little White Lies. When you tossed them into the backpack, you hardly felt it. But after adding handfuls of pebbles over time, the backpack became quite heavy.
The medium-sized rocks represented transgressions that were a bit more serious: the hurtful thing said to a spouse, the lie that was not so little, dishonest gain. I took those rocks and added them to the backpack. Such sins, left unaddressed, especially when repeated and eventually discovered, can bring serious pain to others. But even when they are not discovered, carrying enough of them on your back will weigh you down.
Then there were the big rocks, each stone the size of a bread loaf, some as heavy as twenty pounds. They represented very serious sins—the kind that, at work, for example, would merit our dismissal if discovered. Some might be criminal acts. Some represented such fundamental violations of trust that, if found out, would lead to divorce or a loss of friendships. I put a few of those in my backpack.
I took my backpack, now filled with nearly sixty pounds of rocks, hoisted it onto my back, and continued to preach and move around the chancel of the church. But quickly, I began to become winded. My shoulders drooped. One of my arms tingled, and my lower back hurt. The congregation winced as they watched, seeing the metaphorical effects of sin and guilt on our souls played out on my body as I sought to carry that pack while preaching. Like the psalmist, I could feel it: "My guilt has overwhelmed me, like a burden too heavy for me to carry."
Those who don't seek forgiveness carry a host of burdens. Every harsh word, every unclean thought, every instance in which we neglect to do the right thing or go ahead and do the wrong thing—they're all there. Without forgiveness, they create an ever-widening gap between us and God, and between us and our fellow human beings. They sap our joy and then our strength.
Fortunately, there is an answer. God's answer to "the question[s] implied in our existence" is that we seek God's forgiveness and the forgiveness of those we've wronged. Seeking forgiveness can lighten our load. It can set us free. It can restore us to a right relationship with God and others. For, as the psalmist attests, "God is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love."
Throughout the Scriptures, God says, in effect, "Let me lift the burden from you." In the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, we find that God provided a whole system by which people could atone for their sins, because God wanted them to be healed and to live in right relationship with him. This theme of forgiveness and atonement is also a central focus of the New Testament. It is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ: God provided a Savior and offers us forgiveness and a new beginning.
THE GOSPEL OF FORGIVENESS
More than any other world religion, Christianity teaches, preaches, veritably shouts forgiveness. Yes, some of our preachers dwell too long on guilt, and consequently many see Christianity as primarily a religion of guilt. That is unfortunate, for a Christianity obsessed with guilt is no Christianity. Christianity is a faith whose central focus is not guilt, but grace, redemption, healing, forgiveness, and mercy.
But the process of forgiveness begins with our awareness and understanding of sin, for if we are not aware of our sin, we go on living self-absorbed lives while hurting others. So the purpose of preaching and learning about sin is to open the door to healing!
Doctors study medicine not so they can go around telling people they are sick, but so they can heal those who are sick, and the healing can't start until patients are willing to admit they are sick. Once patients admit this, there is the important task of the diagnosis, which then makes possible the cure. So it is with Christianity. We speak about sin in an attempt to diagnose the spiritual malady that afflicts us all. My goal, then, is not to accuse you of being, or even to tell you that, you are sick, but to offer you the medicine that makes you well. It's not simply to ask you the question, but to lead you to the answer. Yes, we're all sinners, and yes, this is a serious issue, but God is a God of grace and mercy.
The psalmist says it this way in Psalm 103:8-12:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love ...
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
God wants to relieve us of the burden that comes with a life of sin, and to set our feet back on the right path. That is precisely why Jesus came. His life and ministry are defined by forgiveness. It was a mission laid out for him before he was born. He was still in the womb when the angel spoke to Joseph and said, "Fear not to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Spirit. And when this child is born you shall call him Jesus, which means savior, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).
Story after story in the gospels involves Jesus' ministry with "sinners." He constantly reached out to those who were estranged from God. He was even accused by the pious of his day of eating with sinners. The stories he told, like the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, point to God's gracious love and grace toward all of us who have made foolish decisions and turned from God's path.
Once, while Jesus was teaching, the religious leaders brought to him a woman caught in the act of adultery. The leaders were carrying stones, since the penalty for adultery, according to the Law of Moses, was death by stoning. They brought the woman to Jesus, hoping to trap him because they knew he showed grace to sinners. They asked him, "Jesus, what shall we do with this woman?" To which he replied, "The one of you who is without sin, you cast the first stone." One by one, the religious leaders walked away. Then Jesus turned to the woman. She was ashamed and filled with guilt, but he looked at her and said, "Woman, where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more" (John 8:10-11).
Beyond the parables he taught and the ministry he wrought with sinners, we have Jesus' direct teaching on our need to receive and offer forgiveness, which we hear in the prayer he taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses (or debts)," it says, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Jesus did as he taught. He forgave the tax collectors, prostitutes, and adulterers. At the Last Supper, he took wine and said to his disciples, "Drink this cup, for it is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins." In this, he offered himself as an amends—an atoning sacrifice—for the sins of the world. Later, as he hung on the cross, he demonstrated the ultimate in forgiveness, praying for those who were putting him to death. "Father," he said, "forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Excerpted from Forgiveness by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2012 Adam Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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