I wrote this for the local paper and it was in today's edition.
One of the few things that various world religions have in common is the idea of sin. It may not be expressed with that term but most religions would describe some ideal for life and would agree that humans don’t live up to that ideal. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that sin creates a barrier between humans and God. Relationship is broken and somehow people need to be saved and have a relationship with God restored.
How that happens differs between religions. Even within a religion there can be different beliefs as to how this restoration can take place. I’m no expert on other religions and I can’t even claim to be totally versed on the subtle differences within Christianity. But I feel pretty safe in saying that a common belief in all branches of Christianity is a belief in God’s forgiveness.
I remember when I was still a seminary student on my internship. I was teaching a confirmation class, a group of twelve and thirteen year olds who weren’t all that interested in what I had to say to them. I asked, “What does God do when we mess up?” and I don’t think most of them even heard me ask the question. Most of the time I didn’t even expect an attempt at an answer but from the noise made by the boys horsing around one of the girls piped up with an answer. She wasn’t all that sure of herself so the answer sounded more like a question. She said, “Forgives(?)”
She was absolutely right. What does God do when we mess up? What does God do with our sin? What does God do to restore our broken relationship? God forgives. The Bible says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth isn’t in our hearts. But if we confess our sins to God, he can always be trusted to forgive us and take our sins away” (1 John 1:8-9).
Not only does God forgive us, we are also commanded to forgive others. In the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples we pray, “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others” (Matthew 6:12). There was also a time when one of Jesus’ disciples asked just how often he should forgive. “‘How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?’ Jesus answered: ‘Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!’” (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus wasn’t just giving him a higher number, he was telling him to stop keeping score. Just forgive!
I don’t think we realize the power of forgiveness. The word has become kind of bland. It has become a “Yeah, whatever. No sweat. Just don’t do it again.” But the concept of forgiveness in the Bible is a life-changing thing. It’s a creative act. New life springs from forgiveness. “Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together” (Colossians 3:13-14).
That can be hard for some of us to take. Some things might be easier to forgive than others. Some things might seem totally unforgivable. In 2006 a gunman took hostage and then shot and killed five young girls before taking his own life in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. One would think that such an evil act would be unforgivable but the families, the parents of those children, forgave the killer. Those who know about Amish life and culture and faith explained that their willingness to forgive does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.
There’s an important point in there. Forgiveness does not say the action was not wrong. Forgiveness does not dismiss the fact that evil exists and happens. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to right the wrongs we have done. Forgiveness allows for reconciliation and a future that is more hopeful.
Recently there has been frequent attention in the media to sinful actions in parts of the Christian Church. The alleged sins of certain members of the clergy were kept quiet, or ignored, or overlooked. These acts were evil, perpetrated by people who held positions of power and trust against the innocent and vulnerable. Does that mean those actions are unforgivable? No. Does that mean those actions should not be punished? No. The consequences of sin remain and certain punishments are required by law.
But forgiveness of our sins is a foundation of the Christian faith. We confess it in our worship when we confess our faith by reciting the creeds of the church. The heart of the Christian message of salvation is reconciliation. “God was in Christ, offering peace and forgiveness to the people of this world. And he has given us the work of sharing his message about peace” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
We are made right with God and given new life, a life and future that are hopeful, by God’s grace and mercy. Our actions will have consequences and may deserve punishment. Relationships become broken. But by God’s grace relationships can be mended. Reconciliation can take place. Forgiveness can lead to new life and a future with hope.