Forgiveness Perpetual


(Spectrumbot) #1

I grew weary of sinning

before God grew weary of forgiving my sin.

He is never weary of giving grace,

nor are his compassions to be exhausted. —Teresa of Avila

I’ve never been fond of the poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Somehow, the image of God on the trail with cold intent to pursue me until I find myself with my back to the wall, nowhere to go, and thus must yield to his designs — that image instills fear rather than love. I don’t deny that some people respond favorably to this and similar images. I’m just saying that in the vast repertoire of metaphors we have for God that one is way down the list for me.

But in a sense, it doesn’t matter all that much what I think about God, whether I think God resembles a hunting dog or a lover or a rock or a fountain of everlasting water. These are educational toys pointing, sometimes distractedly, toward a Being who breaks all categories and metaphors, simply because He/She/They cannot be contained in our refracted lenses.

What really matters is what God thinks of me. For starters, God hates the sins that I manifest so effortlessly. Absolutely, unequivocally, irrevocably, and any other “lys” we’d like to conjure up. This is the case for a couple of reasons.

First, our sin rends the beautiful creation God has provided us. There is a thread running through world faiths that sees a clear causality between human arrogance toward the created world and the fracturing of that world. Back behind the science of climate change are the fables, stories, parables, and straight-out testimony for thousands of years that says we are inextricably intertwined with our world. Because we have command of so many tools our impact on the environment is far out of proportion to our physical size.

We change our world simply by our very presence on this planet; like all other beings we take our place in time and space. But we can minimize our unintended harm and work to eliminate our deliberate havoc. That is sin, and it tears through the perfect circles of interdependence that God set up.

But the second reason God hates sin is what it does to us. How it distorts our perception, calcifies our empathy, teaches us cruelty and contempt, makes us mock the innocent and destroy the beautiful. How it places us beyond contrition and in contention with compassion, stretches our patience to the breaking point and snaps our attention, glorifies violence and belittles peace, derides those who listen and castigates those who are honest. The list goes on, but we get the point. All of this, in God’s way of thinking, is not who we are, and though we find it difficult to separate the gold in others and ourselves from the dross, God sees both and draws the distinction.

Despite our expertise in sinning, our development and refinement of its methods, the thousands of ways we have devised to ruin a beautiful world and to break each other, somehow God is able to see through the sin to the sinner. And the sinner in all of us — incredibly — is what God loves.

We are the pearl of great price that Jesus the Holy Diver plucks from the bottom of the ocean. We are the treasure in the field, buried in a rusty old tin box, that the fellow with the metal detector finds while skimming back and forth across the furrows. We are the lost and forgotten masterpiece picked up at a yard sale and restored to its former beauty, the coin wedged in a grate in the gutter.

But what of those who cower before God, those who keep to the back roads to avoid being seen, the ones who run for their lives if God appears because of the shame and fear of their sinning? Like a dog beaten and abandoned, who limps off when people approach, we see danger in the one who only wants to help.

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the king who woos and weds a lovely peasant girl. The king loves her deeply and truly, but anxiety grows within him because she responds to him as the king, not as her companion, husband, and lover. Their difference in status calls up admiration in the girl, but not confidence. To appear in all his majesty before her would overwhelm and further distance her, for she thinks herself not his equal. Despite their love for each other, there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Neither really understands the other.

Kierkegaard suggests this is God’s dilemma. Since we could not be elevated to a level where we could fully understand God, God would take on himself the form of a servant so that God could understand us.

But perfect fear casts out love, and if we have been told that nothing short of perfection in this life will satisfy God, it’s no wonder that so many run in the opposite direction from the one who comes with healing. God’s persistence looks like deadly intention, his moves to reach and bandage us we see as seizing and shackling us. In desperation and in fear we plunge on through our wilderness.

He tracks us by the blood on the trail, the pain our acts cause for others and ourselves. That which separates us from God and condemns us — Sin — becomes the very means through which Christ finds the cancer and excises it. As Dante shows us, Christ follows our sins down to Hell in order to liberate us, not to condemn us. The very presence of our sins leads to confession and repentance, and finally to absolution and reconciliation.

Complications arise. According to our usual reading, God’s forgiveness of us is a contractual arrangement: if we forgive others, then God can forgive us. If we can’t forgive, then God won’t either. The rules are clear, there’s no ambiguity. We go first, then God reacts. We read it this way because we’re used to relationships that involve some type of transaction, that are functional, that include a payoff or a return on investment.

But this is not how God looks at forgiveness. He doesn’t wait for us to reach out, to make the first move. God’s ego is not tender. He is not easily offended.

Those who are forgiven can forgive. Forgiveness received can become forgiveness extended to others, but it does not work in reverse. We cannot forgive if we have not experienced forgiveness as an extension of God’s unfathomable love.

The woman who crashed a private party for Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house wept for joy because she had been forgiven. Perhaps she and Jesus had had an encounter before this that convinced her of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Perhaps she had grown weary of the trap of her sins. As Luke quotes Jesus, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Perhaps because of this she could even forgive the men who had enjoyed the use of her and then condemned and shamed her for it.

Paul Tillich, in a sermon in The New Being, points out that if we fear God and feel rejected by him, we cannot love him. But if we can see — and feel — that God’s love is without limit, then it truly is a new world. He says, “We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

As Jesus says, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives” (Luke 5:31, CEB). Whatever hellish darkness we find ourselves in, whatever pain we are carrying, we can be assured of this: Only those with a pre-existing condition will be accepted into this universal health care plan.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: Candice Picard / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9526

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

Years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of Focus of Andrews in which zip made mention of the Hound of Heaven.The next issue carried a rebuttal by a pastor in which he made the major point that his Jesus was not a hound dog. Much better to refer I guess to the Love that will not let me go.


(Sirje) #3

I opened the door with one hand, the other, grasping bags of groceries. I kicked off my shoes - and immediately heard the silence. She should be home by now, my little girl. I cautiously approached her room. It was too quiet - too neat. I hunted through the house, and finally found the note, taped to the bathroom mirror - “I’ve moved out.” No forwarding address - no, “I’ll call you later”.

We had lived in silence this past week. I had no words left to say. Her dad and I were supposed to be on our way to take her to college by now. Her sister had gone a year earlier, and she had finally decided to join her. Even though she was older, the decision to go had been put on hold; and now it was all set. They were to room together - her life finally to start. … But there was this guy. They had argued, and the decision had been made to go. That day, the day before our trip, she had left to say goodby to some people - I had begged her not to go. Hours passed, and there was the dreaded phone call - “I’ve decided not to go.” Now the silence…and now the hunt had begun.


(Robert King) #4

And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” Genesis 6:3, There will be an end to sin.


(Robert Lindbeck) #5

I love the opening quote. It is full of reassurance and sums up our relationship with Christ. He never stops loving us. In the end it is us who stop accepting the forgiveness that puts space between us and God.


(Robert King) #6

" As Dante shows us, Christ follows our sins down to Hell in order to liberate us, not to condemn us. The very presence of our sins leads to confession and repentance, and finally to absolution and reconciliation."

really Barry…Dante and hell.


(Kim Green) #7

You have an objection to “Dante” or “hell”…or both??


(Phil van der Klift) #8

Another timely topical presentation Barry.

It appears to me that what you have raised is the tip of a very important iceberg.

What might be necessary to be able to begin to perceive that iceberg - and what might be the outcomes of doing so?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus repeatedly uttered the phrase: “to what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”

In our efforts to attempt to understand and relate to things outside of ourself, our mind employs its subconsciously-driven default tendency to use our personal experience as the reference point that we then extrapolate from and project onto others. Psychologically this is referred to as transference. Spiritually it may be referred to as our unfortunate risk of and all too frequent tendency to re-make God in our image. The first recorded instance of this tendency is represented in Gen 3:10,11 - and it only got worse from then on.

Yet Isa 55: 8-9 gently but emphatically hilights that God’s ways are not our ways. God doesn’t operate on the same premises that we intrinsically do. Thus our transference tends to be mistransferrence. And because we assume and behave in accordance with what we believe we perceive, we end up with wildly mistaken doctrines and practices that we unwittingly believe to be Christian.

For us, forgiveness is typically something we do. For God, it appears that forgiveness is something He is - He can’t not forgive. This is reflected in the response of the prodigal’s father. But notice how the forgiveness of the father really bothers the prodigal’s brother who essentially accuses the father of being unfair in the lavishness of his forgiveness.

[Note too that there is a dramatic difference between’s God’s superabundant, UNCONDITIONAL offering of forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9) and our ability/capacity to benefit from that forgiveness. Our ability/capacity to actually benefit from the forgiveness freely offered by God is CONDITIONAL upon our coming to repentance (2 Pet 3:9) - NOT because God won’t forgive us if we don’t repent, but because we are unwilling and hence unable to receive forgiveness unless we do.]

Similarly, for us sin is something we do. In God’s wider reality, sin is primarily a way of being that secondarily manifests in what we do. Sin is “lawlessness” (1 Jn 3:4) - it is attempting to live out of harmony with the laws/constants that alone enable true life to be viable. As such, it is unviable and therefore results in “perishing” (as per Ps 1:6b; Jn 3:16; etc) via its intentional disconnection from that which alone enables life to be viable.

When we become aware of subconscious default tendencies to see the things of God from our perspective and then, via submission to the Holy Spirit’s leading, intentionally seek to go beyond these tendencies and begin to perceive how reality works from God’s perspective, we come up with a whole different view - one that is harmonious and healing.


(Robert King) #9

No. I like the article very much so. it’s the words As Dante shows us". Dante work is not the truth on this matter and can be used to cause others to err.


(Kim Green) #10

It is just a figure of speech, Robert…it isn’t indicating “truth”. I think that you have associated this because of the EGW usage of the phrase. No one else in the entire world would think this.


(Barry Casey) #11

I am finding Dante’s Commedia to be a profound journey through our realization of sin to forgiveness and to the overwhelming presence of God’s love. Dante had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, of literature, of the science of his day, and especially, deep insights into human psychology and spirituality. There is much we can learn from him. One book that can be a rich introduction to Dante and his masterpiece is Rod Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life.” Dante (and Dreher) don’t presume that the Divine Comedy takes the place of the BIble, but Dreher offers a poignant and powerful witness to how an intensive study of it, together with prayer and spiritual counseling, brought him peace in the midst of a debilitating disease and emotional family problems.


(Quacinda Jodyne Topkok) #12

I can most certainly agree that we see God through the lense of our dysfunction; but the truth is… we [can] love because he first loved us, and forgiveness is most certainly a part of the act of love.