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!