Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Forgiving Face of God

This is an article I have written for the Evangelical Covenant Church's demoninational Magazine, Covenant Companion. I thought I would share it here.

Pop-Pop’s Shining
I called my grandfather, Pop-pop—I’m not sure exactly why, but I never thought twice about it; that’s what we called him. As a child I can only remember him dressed in his blue work clothes, even on Sundays—he wasn’t a church goer, with his name “Joe” stitched into his shirt pocket. As a person, he was as blue collar as his clothes, working all his life as a mechanic. Joe Zarka smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes and ate eggs and bacon for breakfast every morning; he was a man’s man. I loved Pop-pop, because as much as he was a hard man, I knew he loved us grandkids.

We lived next door to Mom-mom and Pop-pop and highlights of my childhood years include those countless nights when I spent the night at their house. These evenings would often have included macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding and games of Yahtzee.

When I would spend the night, Pop-pop performed an evening ritual that I have never forgotten. After putting us kids to bed, Pop-pop would always watch the 11:00 pm news. When the news finished, he would go around to all the rooms, crack the bedroom doors, and shine his flashlight into the beds. When I was a child, and if I was with my sisters or cousins or whoever, we often be horsing around in bed, but would quickly stop what money business we were doing as he walked up the hallway. Then when he shined the flashlight on us we did our best acting job pretending we were sleeping.

I used to think that he shined his flashlight on us to make sure we were behaving, but I came to realize, upon much later reflection, that he was checking to make sure we were safe. Pop-pop loved us and felt that he was responsible for our wellbeing. Now when I think of him, I think of him shining his flashlight late at night into my bunk. When I think of my Pop-pop, I think of him shining his flashlight on me.

Isn’t this how we are, we remember significant people by things they do. Our minds capture the essence of people by their action. What action comes to your mind when you think of significant people in your life past or present? What action captures how you see God?
I think God understands that this is how we work and in the Bible he has given us an image of his activity by which we can envision his essence.

God’s Forgiving
The image is first referred to in Exodus 34, where we see an intimate encounter between God and Moses. The rendezvous takes place in the Sinai wilderness while Israel was in route to the Promise Land. Moses had just come through the most difficult test of his leadership to date. The Israelites forsook God by constructing and worshipping a golden calf (Exod 32—33). Having convinced God to remain with his people, Moses asks to see God’s glory (Exod 33:12-18). God responds positively to Moses’ request and agrees to “cause his glory to pass in front” of him, meanwhile proclaiming his “name” in Moses’ presence. However, God warns “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod 33:19-20). When God encounters Moses, he shelters him in the cleft of a rock and passes by him revealing to Moses only his back. As God passes in front of Moses, he proclaims:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exod 34:6-7a).

Moses responded to this word with the humility and worship that such a significant truth deserved (Exod 34:8).

Within these twenty-seven words the most profound reality is contained. Here we discover God’s primary activity. In these verses we find what God thinks is his most characteristic activity. The Bible provides for us an authoritative picture of God’s most distinctive practice: the act of loving and forgiving.

The Bible teaches that when we think of God, we should think of him forgiving us. As God’s presence, his face, passed before Moses, he met the God who forgives; he saw a forgiving face.

The idea that forgiveness is second nature to God is not at all confined to this one Bible passage. For example, Psalm 86:5 states, “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you”; and again in Psalm 103:3, the Bible asserts “[the Lord] forgives all your sins”.

Finally, perhaps one of the more well-known verses in the New Testament, 1 John 1:9, confirms:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 makes two significant points about God’s forgiveness. One relates to humanity, while the second to God. In the first place, the text makes plain that the forgiveness God does is not unconditional: we must “confess” our sins. Biblically confession means “to say the same thing” or “to agree”. In this context it means to agree with God about the reality and pervasiveness of sin. The verses immediately preceding and following verse nine state, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (v. 8) and “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (v. 10). Thus, a precondition for God’s forgiving action on our behalf is our agreement with his view of sin.

Second, and perhaps most significant, the verse teaches us about God. The passage states that God will be “faithful”. This means that he will be true to his nature and, therefore, he will forgive. In addition, the verse says God is “just”. In other words, he will keep his word of promise that when his people confess their sins he will hear and forgive (1 Kings 8:30, 46-51; 9:3).

Our Thinking and Forgiving
The Scriptures, then, encourage readers to contemplate God’s forgiving tendency to such an extent that it directs the currents of our thoughts and affects our emotions and actions.

The Bible challenges us to meditate on, embrace, and be gripped by the thought that God forgives. Here’s the big idea: when you think of God, think of him forgiving you. This simple and profound truth is grounded in God’s own personal introduction to Moses, repeated in the Psalms and affirmed in the New Testament not only in specific propositions as in 1 John 1:9, but also in Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice for sin. We might remember what the angel of the Lord told Joseph: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

When we are enraptured by the idea of God’s forgiveness, it has the potential of transforming our lives. People who encounter the forgiving God in an intensely personal manner are profoundly secure and emotionally whole, or at least becoming so. At the same time, they are deeply humble and forgiving toward others. Jesus illustrated the antithesis of this attitude and behavior with the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18:21-35).

The gist of the story involves a servant who owed his master a large sum of money. Without the ability to repay him the servant’s fate was a life of slavery. In an amazing turn of events, the master released the servant from the debt and forgave him. Although the servant was forgiven, he did not show the same kind of generosity to a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller sum and threw him in prison. The resolution of the story comes when the master reverses his decision to forgive and has the servant thrown into prison and tortured until he repays his debt. Jesus concludes the story saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt 18:35). The rather harsh point of this parable is uncompromising: to know the forgiving God and yet not forgive is nothing short of an affront to God’s very being and is, therefore, incongruent with the nature of true followers of God the Father and Jesus his Son.

In spite of this hard word of Jesus, the reality of our broken lives makes doing forgiveness either hard or nearly impossible in certain situations. The sharp edge of this truth seems to become quickly dulled by the deeply wounding circumstances of divorce, abuse, dishonesty and broken promises. How do we forgive a father who left behind not just a family, but then a litany of broken promises? How do we forgive a person who preyed on us violating a sacred trust and steeling away our innocence? These are hard questions with uneasy answers. And while the depth of pain can be and is a shared experience, no one should presume to prescribe a method for forgiveness.

The best I can do is to remind you that God’s chief activity is forgiving sinners and to point you to God’s forgiving face, bloodied as it was, as he died on a tree forgiving those who unjustly killed him and giving his life so we can be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is able to erase every injustice and sin humanity can inflict on itself. 


Aquila said...

Excellent! I truly enjoyed it. May God enable more people to see his forgiving face!


MICHAEL said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You