A while back there was a video clip making the rounds. It is footage of a man who is being confronted by friends and family on the A&E show “Intervention”. After one member of the family reaffirms his love, the addict lets out a wail from the very depths of his soul. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee925OTFBCA (Kleenex alert)
Some people shared this video as a joke; finding humor in the rawness of his emotional response. I saw something different. I saw a lesson on how we should respond to God’s unimaginable love and forgiveness. Consider what is heard as the man cries out:
It is a wail of shame and regret for past sins, hurts, and disappointments.
It is a wail of disbelief that one who has been so injured by his selfishness could offer forgiveness and love instead of bitterness and anger.
It is a wail of gratitude at being given a second chance to make up for past mistakes.
It is a wail of joy over the power of stubborn love and reconciliation.
His cry is our cry to God over our sin, of our repentance, of our relief, of our reconciliation, of our joy, of our long-sought-after peace.
This video shows the power of love which intervenes when we are unwilling or unable to do so.
The cross was our intervention; God’s refusal to hate us or let us continue to be dead to Him. It was God doing for us what we never had the strength or will to do for ourselves.
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NKJV).
Let us cry out to God from deep in our soul and show our gratitude for his stubborn and healing love.
I wanted to write this post in response to a recent article making its rounds in social media:
“Brothers and Sisters, Unwed Pregnancy is Not a Sin”
If you have not read the article, I encourage you to take a few minutes now and do so before reading my response.
The article brings forth some uncomfortable truths and much-needed admonition to those who would hold mistakes over someone’s head forever. We should never look down on anyone except to help them up. However, the article makes a pendulum swing too far away from “shame” and takes some liberties with scripture that are false and self-serving. I hope in this post to find some middle ground between shunning unwed mothers and gushing over them. Please understand that this was quite difficult to write and comes from a deeply personal place of turbulent emotions. I have tried to choose my words with great care.
First and foremost, children are a blessing in all instances. The Bible tells us that “Children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3 NASB). Pregnancy may be a consequence of bad decisions but babies are never a punishment (as one politician cruelly put it). However the baby got there, it is a miracle of life and a joy to be treasured, even in cases of rape. Those children did nothing to deserve a death-sentence and innumerable families would love to give that innocent baby a good life. You cannot absolve one horrific crime with an even worse crime.
Now, could we be more loving, more forgiving, and less condemning? Sure we could! And we must. Shunning accomplishes nothing except making a bad situation worse. Two souls (mother and child) need the church’s support even more at that time. Sadly, we often fail to show that Christ-like compassion. We have much work to do in this area.
The article pointed out that a woman walking into a pregnancy crisis clinic doesn’t need a theological lecture. She needs to feel safe and know that the precious child she carries is a blessing. That is a perfectly appropriate response from that agency. However, her church family must offer something deeper; something even more loving and possibly less comfortable for everyone.
The article makes several appeals to the old “what would Jesus do?” question without recognizing one crucial fact: Jesus never condoned sin. Jesus reached out to people with love and acceptance despite their sin,but he was never content to let them stay there and He NEVER celebrated their sin. John 8:3-11 gives us insight into exactly what Jesus would do. He told the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you.” He also told her “Go and sin no more.” This means there is room for forgiveness and mercy even when there is acknowledgement of sin. The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, sin must be acknowledged before forgiveness can occur. Jesus put it bluntly in Luke 17:3 “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” No ifs, ands, or buts. He repents, you forgive–period. Leave the judging of hearts to God, where it belongs.
Having compassion is one thing; celebrating is quite another. In my personal experience, when unwed pregnancy is met with only praise and rejoicing, it is seen as something to aspire to and be proud of. You encourage it and get more of the same. This should not be. Repentance must be part of the equation. Not public shaming, not grovelling, and not periods of “probation” before welcoming a sinner back into the family of God, but true “godly sorrow” as defined in Second Corinthians 7:9-10.
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus had been teaching His disciples about how to deal with people when there is a conflict. Right after this, Peter chimes in with a question, sort of. Peter asks in verse 20, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (NASB). Peter probably thought he was being pretty generous. Wow, seven times! Peter, you’re much too kind. How shocked he and the others must have been when Jesus answered, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus did not mean that we should keep a tally sheet and when/if we reach 490 we can then say, “That’s it! I don’t have to forgive you anymore!” He was using a ridiculously large number to indicate that we should not be in the accounting business, but in the forgiving business.
Jesus expands on this in the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel which is found in chapter 17. As if the words in Matthew 18 were not hard enough to live out, Jesus ups the ante on forgiveness. “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). Well, now You are just asking too much, Jesus. Seven times in the same day? That means this person is not showing true repentance and does not deserve forgiveness.
AH-AH-AH! Not so fast. That would require us to know and judge a person’s heart and ONLY God is qualified to do that.
Jesus makes this painfully simple: He repents, you forgive. Period.
But Jesus, You don’t know how many times he has—NO! He repents, you forgive. This is the command.
But Jesus, wouldn’t it be better to teach this person the lesson that—NO! He repents, you forgive. Just do it.
But Jesus, what if he doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Does that get me off the hook?
This is the part where Jesus would facepalm and shake His head. Don’t miss the point.
The disciples surely didn’t miss the point. Their perfect understanding was proven by what they said next. Jesus had just commanded them (and us) to forgive as many times as someone repents. Their immediate response was, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). They knew that they (and we) were going to need some divine assistance to carry out that command. The Lord’s answer is astounding. He essentially says in verse 6, “Use what you’ve got—it’s enough.” Their faith seemed as small as a mustard seed compared to the gigantic task ahead of them. Jesus told them that if their faith was sincere, then it was big enough. Well, OK Jesus. But if I manage to pull this off, I deserve a medal and a parade! The Lord predicts this attitude in verses 9-10 and preemptively strikes down any prideful feelings which may arise. “[The master] does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’ ” We don’t deserve a round of applause for merely doing what we were commanded. We are not worthy of a spot in Hebrews chapter 11 with the superstars of the faithful. We haven’t elevated ourselves to some lofty position of Christianity. We haven’t gained anything extraordinary. We are still sitting at zero. All we have done is prevented ourselves from falling below the line of obedience and into a deficit.
Is forgiving hard? Yes! It may be the one of the hardest commands to obey. What it is not, however, is optional; it is required. So let’s you and I stop treating it like it is optional. Let us not require people to grovel, beg, and crawl for our forgiveness after we think they’ve suffered enough and shown “proper” repentance. God did not require that of us. We may sin seven times a day against Him but He offers mercy every time we ask. His grace is eager, available, and immediate. So should ours be.
I am on the floor.
I laid facedown on the cold, hard floor because I could not lift my eyes to You. How could I have failed You again? My kneecaps shifted painfully and my chest hurt as my ribcage flattened under my weight. My arms were drawn inward so my hands could hide my eyes from seeing or being seen. My forehead and nose lay pressed against the unforgiving wood laminate.
I didn’t deserve Your forgiveness. I laid there wallowing in the words of David from the fifty-first Psalm: “My sin is ever before me…I was born in iniquity; conceived in sin” (ESV). I became the apostle Paul when he wrote in Romans chapter seven that “no good thing dwells in me…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…wretched man that I am!” Far too wretched to fight any longer. What’s the use? I am too spiritually exhausted to even weep over my failure anymore. I am dry. I am done. I have nothing. I am nothing.
I feel You continually reach out to me. You speak through the words of the Bible, of course, but even through other books and articles I read. Sharp, convicting statements which surely were not so intended by the author. Scanning through the radio stations and being reminded that stubbornly following my own will and desires has me on a “Highway to Hell.” A glorious sunrise which appears every morning without fail to show Your power and glory and to remind me there is hope with each new day. These happen far too often to be mere coincidence. The hounds of heaven persist in their hunt.
Still, I am on the floor.
Unable and unwilling to rise any higher by my own strength. It is only then that my feeble hand crawls away from my face and reaches out to find Your hand waiting.
Then the tears do come. How can You love me at all, let alone so much? It is not because of my worthiness, but because of Yours. Because You are Who You are. What You are. Paul made this same realization in 2nd Corinthians chapter twelve. God’s strength is (and can only be) revealed in our weakness and need. When I am weak, then I am strong. I am certainly weak at this point. So weak that I cannot rise above the floor. Above my sin. Above myself. The hand which brushed Yours now grasps it firmly, clutching with desperation. Warm love radiates through my fingers and up my arm. It builds into throbbing power which gives life to my body dead in sin.
At last, I find the strength to rise, but only to my knees. I must remain there for now. Eyes still clamped shut, closing out the world which threatens to distract me from You. There, in the quiet darkness behind my eyes, I praise You for not giving up on me even when I quit on myself. I praise You for the thousands of reminders and whispers which have brought me to this point of epiphany. I still dare not rise off my knees. The floor remains just as hard and unforgiving but not You, oh Lord, not You. I must remain here to praise You still longer.
Haven’t I been here before? In this same, exact place? Promising to do better and try harder only to fail again and again. My shoulders slump. The floor beckons me to return.
NO! Today is different!
I hear a malevolent chuckle. “Fool, child. You’ve said that before, too,” the serpent hisses. You shut up! It doesn’t matter! I may fail again but I WILL try. No, I won’t “try,” I will succeed! I will make it today because there is no greater power in the universe than the God who loves me and walks with me.
Now, I can get off my knees and prepare for battle. It will be a battle, no doubt. I reach for the only weapon suitable for this warfare—my sword. I quickly turn to Romans chapter seven and read the words of Paul’s despair because I know how it turned out. That miserable state of futile agony gives way to victory in chapter eight. Though I am often tempted to condemn myself for repeated failure I read: “THERE—IS—NOW—NO—CONDEMNATION—TO—THOSE—WHO—ARE—IN—CHRIST—JESUS!” (Romans 8:1).
I jab each word with a stiffened finger, as if into the eye of my enemy to prove how wrong he is. How wrong I am. Paul is invigorated, full of God’s victorious Spirit, and asks five rhetorical questions: If God is for us, who can be against us? No one! If God did not withhold His own Son, what gifts will He fail to give us? None! Who shall bring charges against God’s chosen? Nobody! Who is he who condemns? No one! Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Nobody!
My face sags as I realize that somebody can. I can. Only I can. That’s what I’ve been doing. Lord, I beg you to give me the strength to stop doing that. I cannot find this strength in myself, You know that. I beg You to be my strength where I have none. Squeeze my hand when I begin to let go. Otherwise, I will be right back on the cold, hard floor again tomorrow. And when I fail You again tomorrow, Lord, I pray You grant me the strength to rise to my knees to praise You once more and try again.