His words broke my heart. The young man had just finished telling me of a deep failing in his life, that had left him humiliated, shattered and ashamed. I had listened carefully to his account of bad decisions and selfish actions and consequences which, though regrettable, were not as tragic as they might have been. Still, for him, they were severe enough to bring him to this place of repentance and confession.
As we talked, I urged him to pray out his confession to God, assuring him of our gracious God’s mercy and readiness to forgive (I John 1:9). It was his despairing response that brought me such grief. “What’s the point? God won’t forgive me. God can’t forgive me. What I’ve done is too wrong, too evil. There’s no hope for someone like me.”
In case you are trying to guess who the broken young man might have been, he doesn’t really exist. Or rather, I should say, he exists with a thousand faces that I have met over my years of ministry, with a thousand woeful tales of things said and done, or things that should have been said and done, with the result of hearts being wounded, relationships damaged, trust destroyed. All too common as well, sadly, in so many of those situations, was men and women convinced that they could not be forgiven, convinced that they stood before a stern God unrelenting in his judgment, unappeasable in his anger and unforgetting of their offenses. Their vision of God was, terrifyingly, one of a holy Judge without mercy, a Heavenly Disciplinarian forever disappointed, a Righteous Deity forever re-calculating the increasing sum of their guiltiness and heaping on new levels of the burden of shame.
And my heart does break each time I meet a prisoner, for that is what they are, caught in the snare of a warped vision of God. In some situations, I suppose, it may be that the vision of God as rigid judge and unyielding accuser was born and inflicted from childhood experiences of such behavior and attitude being directed toward them from a parent, a family member, a teacher or some other authority figure or person of influence. Other times, such an ugly distorted vision may have come from false teaching within a church setting or perhaps simply from the unrelenting demands for perfection which media and society throw up against us. If we don’t measure up to the air-brushed, hyped fiction of a film star, fashion model or media personality, we are told we are failures, worthless and worthy of shame. Our children are so frequently abused by a culture that bombards them with constantly shifting values and conditions of worth, that many grow up without an inkling of what unconditional love and acceptance really looks like.
While scripture certainly affirms that God is the one who shall judge us most fully and most finally, the Bible also reveals a God who loves us most fully and most finally, so much so that he offered up his only Son as a sacrifice and ransom for us. All the hate, evil, blame, shame, guilt and ugliness that the world could ever throw an undeserving human being, Jesus took upon himself, so that we might know holy release, unconditional pardon, extravagant forgiveness, cleansing grace, and complete restoration as sons and daughters of God. It is as if the holy Judge of eternity pronounced the guilty verdict and the sentence of death, then removed his robe and every symbol of power, came down from the bench and took our place in the prisoner’s dock, bearing himself the punishment we deserved, so that we could go free, perfectly free.
Many people fear the judgment of God, because their vision is of a wrathful, bitter and impossible to appease Lord who abhors any whiff of sinfulness or failing. In truth, the judgment of God is against anything that keeps us from being all that God intended for us, his beloved children. The Lord’s judgment is against all that binds us, cripples us, and robs us of the joy of living as the redeemed of the Lord. In other words, God judges us for the sake of our cleansing and healing. God judges us so that we might be drawn into the place of calling on his mercy, asking for his pardon and receiving his saving grace. God judges us for the sake of leading us into his freedom, redemption and peace. Or as the prophets put it, his judgment is so that we may be washed and made whiter than snow (Isaiah 1:18) and refine us like silver (Zechariah 13:9).
My heart breaks when I meet people so shackled to their guilt and shame that they cannot believe that God is rich enough in love and big enough in grace and mercy as to be not only able but absolutely willing to forgive us, release us, and restore our hope and joy. Yet this is the true God that I believe we meet in scripture – as the Psalmist said, who is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (86:15), a God who does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him (103: 10-13).
This I believe with all my heart – our only hope as human beings is that we are loved, unconditionally and passionately – by a God who is absolutely lavish and prodigal in his mercy and grace. And that is not merely our only hope – it is our saving hope and greatest joy, because this is our God made known in Jesus. Thank heavens!
Are you saying that those that are not bound or crippled by their past, are freed from the judgement of God? I am a little confused, can you explain a little more what living as the redeemed means please. So, if someone is never freed from this, what happens?
To quote C. S. Lewis once again: our problem is not that we ask too much of God, it is that we ask too little. We are like the urchin content with playing in a mud puddle in the alley when all the time we are being offered a holiday at the seashore. I believe our gracious God has such profound blessing and joy to provide us — as Paul said, more than we can ask or imagine. Or, as the prophet Malachi suggested, God is waiting to throw open the storehouses of heaven and pour out so much blessing that we can not contain it all. And in reference to Malachi’s words, I believe the tithe we are called to bring is the receptive, trusting, rejoicing heart. In other words, the more we allow God to heal, help, surprise and grace us, the deeper and greater will be the blessedness God gives us to enjoy. Ask and we will receive! But our kindly Father will not force on us what we are unwilling to receive or ask for. If we want to settle for only a mud puddle, that is all we will get.
One of my favourite writers put it this way: “We are free to make fools of ourselves in this life and damned fools of ourselves forever.” And it seems to me there is no greater folly than not trusting that the Lord of all creation and compassion has mercy and blessing in an abundance beyond measure, even more than we can ask or imagine.