Reader Question

How can I ask God for forgiveness? It seems like it is making light of all the things I’ve done wrong in the past.

Thank you for this question.  It’s pertinent, powerful, and pesky.

Here’s one way of thinking through what forgiveness is about: or, rather, what it is not about.  It’s the distinction between overcoming vs. overlooking.

When I read your question, my impression is that you associate forgiveness with the latter, namely with overlooking.

It’s an understandable and common notion, right?  We hear it a lot in the phrase “forgive and forget.”  Whatever occurred doesn’t matter.

That’s different than what happens when a person thinks about forgiveness as overcoming.

When you work with the idea of forgiveness as overcoming, you don’t ignore whatever happened.  It’s precisely because something happened that forgiveness is on the table in the first place.

Forgiveness, though, is the applied notion that something is more powerful than what occurred.  Not that something didn’t occur, but that it isn’t final, it isn’t ultimate.

The way I do Christian theology, I look at forgiveness through the lens of Easter.  The tomb was what, as you write above, was done wrong in the past. And if that were worth hanging onto, If God were fixated on that, then Jesus would have just stayed dead.

But the Christian story says that he didn’t.  Instead, he rose from the dead.

My thinking tells me that we can talk about judgment, but that Easter redefines it: Easter announces that God’s final judgment, so to speak, is that life is more powerful than death, that mercy wins out over condemnation, or, as I have said I’m sure ad nauseum, that death is real, but life is real-er.

Not that judgment is precluded, but in the end, it does not prevail.

That is, Easter redefines us not on the basis of the past but on the future: life wins.

A couple of other ways of thinking through this:

1.  You are doing more wrong than you even know (Who says that never was a discouraging word said on the prairie?).  No matter what you do, you are engaging in sin.

I talk about my countertop to illustrate that.

When I remodeled my house to accommodate for my son’s wheelchair, I wanted it to be as eco-friendly as possible.  Among other decisions, I needed to choose a countertop.

I could have gotten a relatively affordable laminate.

But I had also learned of a new product made with recycled cardboard (for two shades of brown), recycled newsprint (for two shades of grey and black), and (with the help of a contract with the federal reserve), shredded money for green!

It was expensive.  However, it was made with recycled material and was itself recycled.  To top it off, a portion of the proceeds was funneled into developing sustainable housing in Africa.

So what do I do?  Do I go for the expensive but ecologically responsible product?  Or do I buy the laminate and give the difference away to Bread for the World?

I maintain that no matter what I did, somebody was harmed or died, and I am not exaggerating.

My point is that we are caught in a web of interrelationships, and just by existing we will inadvertently (let alone intentionally) harm somebody.

This is why Luther had reservations about confession: not that he didn’t appreciate the power of confessing one’s sins, but because there was never any way that we could confess, let alone know, all of our sins.

2.  Forgiveness can be a power play.  The forgiver can extend or withhold forgiveness, and in doing so, wield fantastic power.  But when forgiveness is done from a position of self-righteousness, or a refusal to look at the context of the infraction, or the context of the infractor (so to speak), then humility and compassion are withheld.

That is, who is not him/herself in need of forgiveness?  And who then are we to withhold it?

Life is messy.  None of us hit home runs every moment of every day.

At our house, right beside the front door, we have a little brass bowl which we fill with water.  These are often hung beside the doors in Roman Catholic homes in Germany.  We dip our fingers in them when we leave and when we return home, as a reminder that we are not defined by our sins but by the fact that our sins are washed away.

That does not mean that, as Paul asked rhetorically, “Should we sin more because grace abounds?”

Instead, it means that still and even so, we are forgiven.  As Psalm 130 tells us (Luther’s favorite), because there is forgiveness in God, God is loved.  The forgiveness comes first, which allows us to trust and love God, and then act out of that trust and love.

All of that said, I can’t help but believe that often it is our difficulty in forgiving ourselves, rather than believing that God forgives us.

And when we do that, we give the sin, or our complicity in it, more power than we do God’s word of forgiveness.

One more thing: Often people say that repentance is necessary in order for forgiveness to occur.

I’m all in favor of repentance. It is cleansing, it is healing, it is honest.

But I look at tales about lost coins and lost sheep, and realize that they didn’t repent and still were found and joyously reunited with their owners.  It’s even questionable whether the prodigal son repented; some readings suggest he was just hungry and tired with sleeping with sheep.

Sometimes we can’t repent (for any number of reasons: can a murderer repent?  someone whose actions were born out of mental illness, despair?), sometimes we don’t know we need to repent.

Call me a Lutheran-on-steroids, I’m just blame uncomfortable with making repentance a work that must be done in order to receive forgiveness.

An oft-repeated quote is that “Withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat-poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

You can withhold it, but doing so won’t benefit the sinner, and it surely won’t benefit the sinnee.

So were we to be having a face-to-face conversation, I think I’d press you to talk to me about what you understand forgiveness to mean, and to bring about.

Maybe we can get a few additional voices to weigh in here: What do you think?

P.S.  See a couple of my other blogs on forgiveness here and here.