Monday, March 25, 2013

On sin and mercy

I do not recall if I've told this story before, so please forgive me if I have. Though the event itself was perhaps not such an unusual event for childhood, the memory of it is still quite poignant.

It occurred when my family was still living in Minneapolis and I was a young child. My mother, brother and I had returned from some outing, apparently having taken a bus, since we approached the house from the front. For reasons I no longer recall, my mother instructed me to wait at the front door while she and my brother went around to the back. They would enter the house through the back door and then let me in.

I waited and waited. I did not like being left behind and, in a moment of anger, I kicked the storm door, leaving a dent in it. I was, of course, let in the house and I'm sure the wait was not nearly so long as it felt. I do not remember my parents' response to this bit of acting out on my part - at least not in any words or actions. If I was yelled at, I do not remember it. I am sure I was not beaten for it. What I do remember though was my father trying to figure out how to repair the dent in the door.

He didn't have to say anything. I felt ashamed and knew he was disappointed in me. My father, who worked every day (Saturday mornings too) and then came home to have to house and yard maintenance chores, now had one more thing to do because of me. Looking back, I imagine he must have been angry, but he did not show it. My father was (and is) a kind and gentle man.

I felt a deep shame at my anger and how I lost control of it. I don't remember that I ever said I was sorry. (We didn't tend to verbalize things like that in my family.) I don't remember my parents ever saying that they forgave me either - but their forgiveness was evident in the way life continued as usual. They took care of me as they always did, helping me with school projects, including me in family outings, giving me gifts on my birthdays. My "sin" against them did not change their love for me.

I put the quotation marks around the word "sin" because it seems to be one of those words that has gone out of fashion in the popular culture. In fact, many of us balk at the word these days because of what it conjures up. What it conjures up is different for each of us, depending on what, if any, religious training we may have had early in life. For many, it evokes thoughts of punishment by an angry God - punishment to the point of damnation. To hell: the place where God sends sinners.

As I talk to many suffering people in my daily work, it is not unusual that this comes up in some form or another, even though I work in a secular setting. When bad things happen in life, it is not unusual for people to wonder: why is this happening to me? Is God punishing me? Some who ponder this question have some  regrets or guilt tearing at their souls. Others go searching for something. What could I have done?

It also not unusual for people to tell me, "I know I'm going to hell." (It always breaks my heart to hear this...) Sometimes there is a reason for this declaration, such as some past or present sin, but just as often this belief seems to be born of a general sense of "badness" that people feel about themselves. Often they have been repeatedly told they are bad in one manner or another - often through verbal, physical or sexual abuse.

This notion of the punishing and vengeful God has led some people to reject God all together. And, I might add, rightly so.

If you are wondering if you read that last line correctly, you did. We should reject this notion of God. If you have been taught these ideas about God, know that you have been misled. In most cases, the misleading likely came from someone who meant well but had a limited understanding of Christianity. In a few cases, the misleading may have come from someone who was simply looking for another way to control or abuse, using God and hell as a threat no different than the threat of a Santa Claus who won't bring presents to bad children.

(If you are a traditional believer and find yourself ready to stop reading, please don't. I am not about to mock God or the Bible in the least. Keep reading.)

God is love. God's love is total, unconditional. God loves every creature He has made and He does not withhold His love from anyone for any reason. His love is personal and endless in depth and scope. No exceptions. Not even for the worst of sinners or the baddest of the bad.

As a sinner, I do not have to repent in order for God to love me. I do not have to  pray for God to love me. I do not have to do good works for God to love me. I do not even have to believe in God for God to love me.

To believe otherwise is to suggest that God's love is conditional, not unconditional. "God will only love me if..." This notion of God makes God into a being rather like us, a being who gets angry and wants revenge. In this view, prayer and repentance are reduced to frantic efforts by us to try to change God so that He will love us again. Besides painting a picture of a God who is not very loving (not even as loving as my parents), it suggests that our relationship with God is always in a state of uncertainty, depending on whether we have been able to sufficiently appease Him.

Or, what may be worse, we see our relationship with God being based on whether we are "worthy". Knowing our faults or "badness" then makes it clear that we could not possibly have a relationship with this God who loves only the worthy.

To truly accept God's love, completely free and unconditional, is not nearly so simple as it may sound, however. One might think that such an unconditional love would make us feel free - it no longer matters whether I sin! God still loves me! I don't even have to work at it!

However, while it is true that my sin does not change God's love for me, my sin does change me. My sin causes me to see God differently - to project onto Him my guilt, my attitudes toward myself and others, until in my mind I have turned Him into a wrathful, punishing God who doesn't want me. My sin convinces me that God is not all-loving - so that I reject Him or I reject myself, either course leaving me stuck in despair.

Hence, the prayer, the repentance, the good works are indeed needed - not to change God but to change me so that I can experience and participate in His freely given love.

Furthermore, accepting that God's love as truly unconditional entails accepting that it is unconditional for everyone - even those who may have hurt me terribly or done great wrongs in the world. I need to let go of wrath and vengeance, even for the Hitlers, the child molesters, the mass murders of the innocent.

No, it is not an easy thing to accept that God's love is free and unconditional. Accepting this truth requires me to change - or rather to allow myself to be changed. Without His grace and mercy I could never do it.

This coming week we call "Holy Week" because we commemorate during this time the most abundant outpouring of love and grace and mercy imaginable. Please join me here again for Easter to celebrate the news of how we can be changed by the love of God.

(Others have written much more eloquently than me about the unconditional nature of God's love. Fr. Aidan Kimel, an Orthodox priest, writes and quotes others most beautifully on his blog: