I was born and raised in a Christian home with Christian notions of forgiveness. And while my beliefs have certainly evolved since my childhood, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss my thoughts on forgiveness as it relates to the Christian faith.
Now, if Christianity makes you want to run for the the hills, I’m not going to stop you. I understand you may have been deeply hurt or even traumatized by a Christian in the past. So, if this is at all triggering for you, please feel free to stop reading here.
But for those who would like to continue reading, I want you to know my spiritual writings are never about indoctrinating you into a particular belief system. My own beliefs oscillate and never quite fit into one particular category or tradition anyway. This post, especially, is not about a right way of believing. It’s about a different way of living.
More specifically, this post is about living in the ever-present reality of forgiveness. Yes, I believe forgiveness is an eternal reality that always has been and always will be available to you. Why? Because forgiveness is the posture of the Divine.
This notion of ever-present forgiveness is seen throughout Jesus’ ministry beginning with his insistence that the people of his day needed to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17, NIV). But what did this phrase actually mean back then and what does it mean for us today in terms of our forgiveness?
Often, the modern interpretation of this verse is ask for forgiveness so you can go to heaven someday when you die. Unfortunately, this definition does not do justice to the original understanding of repentance and the kingdom of heaven.
Repent, in the original Greek, was the word metanoia. This word would have been originally understood to mean a change of heart or change of mind about someone or something.
Additionally, when Jesus spoke of the “kingdom of heaven,” he was not referring to an afterlife. He was referring to the present life. This is evident in Matthew 11:12 (NIV) when Jesus says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” Call me crazy, but I don’t think violent people were raiding the afterlife!
It is my belief repentance was not about saying the right words to grant you entry into heaven when you die. Rather, it was about changing your heart and mind so you could experience heaven ON earth. Or, another way to look at repentance in our context is this: fall into forgiveness and you’ll see heaven all around you.
I hear the term “Christian guilt” a lot, referring to the feeling one gets after sinning. But what I think many Christians are actually experiencing is shame – a deeply held belief that they are no-good-for-nothing sinners. To be clear, guilt is what we experience when we’ve done something bad and consequently feel bad about it. Shame is when we feel bad about ourselves, when who we are is never good enough.
Yet, the entire Bible is a declaration of our goodness – a reminder that we always have been and always will be enough.
In fact, the Bible begins with a poem about creation. And in this poem, long before men and women encountered shame for the first time, God declared them good! This word “good” is translated from the Hebrew word tov, which means human beings are not only good but have the ability to continue what God started in the creation poem. We have the ability to create more good in the world!
What’s more, God did not stop declaring people were good after shame entered the world. No, helping people believe they’ve been worthy from the beginning became all the more important! This is why the story of Jesus is so central to the story of humanity. He never stopped spreading the good news that we are unconditionally and irreversibly loved by the Divine.
Jesus primary announcement throughout his ministry was the good news that we’re all invited to the party, baby! No one gets left out in God’s family! It doesn’t matter how often or how badly you mess up, or whether you say, do or believe “the right things,” and it certainly doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve asked for forgiveness – you’re in!
Jesus had many encounters with so called “sinners” throughout his ministry. These were people the religious community saw as outcasts because of their misdeeds. But Jesus always welcomed these outcasts into his company and never once demanded they ask for his forgiveness first. Instead, he treated them with respect, showed them unconditional love and, after loving them well, called them to step into a better life.
I think of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman:
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:1-11, NLT)
Notice how Jesus never demanded the woman ask for forgiveness. He simply told her she was not condemned, then he told her to go and sin no more. Jesus, of course, knew she wasn’t perfect. He knew she would sin again, but that’s not the point.
Jesus was inviting her to go forward into the freedom of her forgiveness. She didn’t have to stay stuck and weighed down by guilt and shame. Her sins were already forgiven. She was loved and worthy of a better life, and he wanted her to believe it.
Jesus was all about setting captives free. If you are stuck in guilt or shame, you aren’t free. Remember, forgiveness is a heart and mind shift. It is letting go of your emotional baggage, so you can freely live the life you were meant to live.
You are a child of the Divine. You are already unconditionally loved, accepted and forgiven. Now, it’s up to you! You can stay stuck in a life that does not honor the goodness of your humanity – your tov! – or you can fall into forgiveness and experience the freedom that’s been available to you the whole time.
You may be wondering if this means you should stop asking for forgiveness altogether. The short answer is no. The long answer is going to be the topic of the next post in my “Fall Into Forgiveness” series. If you want to be notified when the next post becomes available, I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter.