So does God forgive me or not?
A lot of people try to start with the Bible when they answer that question--never a bad place to start. The only problem is, allow me to save you some time with this if you didn't know already, scripture goes back and forth all the time on this question. So the only way to get a satisfying answer is to take the answers you like and to lie to yourself about what the rest of it says. This doesn’t mean that scripture isn’t your most precious resource when answering this question of urgent importance. It just means that the Bible is a book which argues against itself all the time. This isn’t some flaw that needs to be covered up in the historical records. It’s perfectly intentional. Scripture should be read argumentatively because it is, itself, a history of argument. To read it slavishly and unthinkingly is to either be very confused or to lie.
I've known for a while now that I will never be what you would call a spiritual giant. I’ve known and heard about real people who have given up huge chunks of their life to sit in prison for a just cause, people who have forgone any spouse or noteworthy possessions in order to live among the poor, people who don’t watch Netflix or soccer on TV because they think about nothing else but the kingdom of God.
I’m not that. I guess I should be. For a long time I earnestly wanted to be. But I’m not. So the question becomes, is there still a place in the kingdom for a spiritual hobbit? And is it worth trying still, knowing I'll never attain beatific status in this lifetime?
(Disclaimer: I have only a marginal interest in Lord of the Rings, and there is no deeper significance to the giant/hobbit analogy other than the height of respective middle earthers).
It’s not as if I’ve let that insight be a crutch to keep me from trying either—as if I’ve thrown my hands up and missed out on some hidden potential. I’ve gone through seasons where I’ve been extremely prayerful, generous, patient, selfless, forgiving, fixated on the strengths rather than the faults of those around me, etc. Those have always been the best times in my life. The problem is I get depressed sometimes, or my relationships stop working the way I want them to, or my goals for the future don’t come together as quickly as I’d like, and I get very curved in on myself (Luther’s way of referring to navel gazing). The problem is that my spiritual stature at a given time is heavily dependent on how I’m feeling on a given day. And I have to imagine St. Theresa of Avila and Dorothy Day were a lot more consistent than that.
At best, I’m a spiritual hobbit. My heart is in the right place, but I’m lacking some of the more obvious qualities of the advanced spiritual athlete.
Frankly, it’s not even all that helpful if God has only been bought off or tricked into loving me with the sacrifice of some other actually good person. Because I’m sort of still afraid of a God like that—and not like “fear the Lord” afraid but afraid afraid. And fear is something that causes people to curve in on themselves more than just about any other.
So God's grace needs to be an all or nothing deal in my life. And really my reason for hoping that God is a God of grace is far more primal than my reading of Romans or the fact that I was raised in the Lutheran tradition. Frankly, God has to be a God of grace or I’m hosed no matter what. And if I’m hosed no matter what, then none of the rest of it matters. If I’m not hosed, then nothing else matters, if you get my drift.
Now scripture does help me here, not because of it’s ideological consistency but because it points to someone who is overwhelmingly consistent in his choosing compassion and forgiveness for sinners over condemnation. It even cost him his life, because all of our social strata and decorum starts getting all jumbled up when you start forgiving sinners.
But I believe that in Jesus' forgiveness I’ve found a loophole in the inevitable destruction that I would bring onto myself if left to my own devices. And it has very little to do with my own spiritual prowess.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.