The Forgiving God
I had sinned. It was just that simple, except it was different this time. This time I knew my sinfulness, and I couldn't handle it. I had been a Christian for a decade, been trained for and ordained to the ministry. In fact, I was in East Africa as a missionary when the enormity of my sin hit me.
When I relate the facts, they don't sound like a big deal. One day in casual conversation with an African leader, I mentioned something - a true fact - about Eve, another missionary. With no intention of spreading gossip, he told two other people. The information then took wings and flew everywhere.
When Eve learned that the story had spread - even though true - and that it had started with me, she was furious.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know-"
"That's no excuse!"
She fired every verbal barrage at me she possessed. Her remarks devastated me, and I didn't try to defend myself. After she left, I went into my bedroom and dropped on my knees. "I'm sorry, God," I said. "I didn't mean to hurt her."
Instead of finding relief and feeling forgiven, the pain increased. I had sinned by gossiping. I knew enough theology to acknowledge that God had forgiven me, but emotionally, I sank deeper and deeper into despair.
I was a sinner.
I had failed God.
I had failed Eve.
Hundreds of other instances filled my thoughts - unkind words, careless actions, insensitive behavior, and even a few times when I had deliberately done something to get back at another person.
I defended myself to God. First, I had assumed most people knew about Eve's past. Second, she was a woman who had a remarkably warm relationship with gossip.
Despite my defenses, no relief came.
I knew the situation with Eve had only opened a sealed compartment of my life. The anguish of soul had little to do with Eve. I became aware of my innate sinfulness.
I had sinned against God many times. Who hadn't? Each time I confessed and God forgave me. That was how the Christian faith worked. Except this time it didn't seem so easy. I felt no forgiveness, no release from my failures and shortcomings. The more I prayed, the worse I felt.
"Is there no forgiveness for me?" I cried. "Is my sin so awful that I can't receive absolution?" My theological training died inside that room, and I didn't know if I could ever resuscitate it. I didn't care about what the Church taught or the facts of the faith.
I canceled my activities, returned to my bedroom, and prayed through the morning. By noon, I didn't want to eat or talk or even look at anyone. I felt as if the word sinner had been painted across my face.
I was a sinner.
I stayed in my room most of the afternoon. At first, my wife Shirley tried to comfort me, but she's a smart person and sensed that I had a spiritual battle going on inside. She left me alone.
For three days, I battled my sin. I must have read Psalm 51 a dozen times. That psalm is David's cry for forgiveness after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed in battle. I particularly thought of his wail, "Against you, you only have I sinned."
I understood, and those words echoed from my own lips. I had hurt Eve. I had hurt hundreds of people, but right then I couldn't think about them. God was the one who mattered. I prayed and prayed, but no peace came.
By the third day, I realized something about myself. I wasn't a man who sinned. I was a sinner who lived out his natural bent. Everyone from Paul, through the early Church Fathers, to Augustine, to Luther and Calvin had been saying that. But now I heard it.
I felt even more ashamed.
Sin moved from a concept to a personal reality. Until then, I would never have denied I was a sinner or that I failed God regularly. But over that three-day period, the reality of human sinfulness, and specifically, my sinfulness took on substance.
"God, help me. If you leave me to myself, I'll just keep on doing things like this. I won't get any better. I'll just repeat my sin in different forms."
Just before noon on the third day, the release came through a quiet inner assurance that God had forgiven me. Or perhaps better, I could finally accept forgiveness. Now I had peace. I relaxed and slept for several hours.
That experience made me conscious of the Forgiving God, the one who bathes us with love and makes us brightly clean. Even though I deserved nothing but punishment, inside my head I heard something like this from 1 John 2:1 (NIV): "I write this to you so that you will not sin. But [italics mine] if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One."
I'm weak and yield to temptation. But through that experience, God became the Forgiver-a wonderful liberating reality-in my life. When I ignorantly or foolishly do wrong, God is there to forgive me. Even with that glorious understanding, I still have had to learn to forgive myself. How could I let go of my sin? Of my pain? Of my grief? I knew the standard (and true) answers:
"Just surrender it to God."
"Yield it to God."
"Commit yourself to God."
"Let go and let God."
I'd heard those zillions of times, but they left me with a problem. How? I knew what to do, but I didn't know how.
By contrast, some people don't seem to take their sinfulness seriously enough. For them, confession is like putting a coin into a newspaper kiosk - in goes the coin, out comes the newspaper. Just a simple transaction. It didn't work that mechanically for me. I agonized. Several of my friends said, "You're just too hard on yourself."
"Of course I am," I said, "but I don't know how to do differently."
Then they sent me another truckload of advice - true and all meaningful, but not helpful.
I wish I could end this chapter by saying that now I go into my private place of confession and say, "Father, forgive me, for I have sinned," and walk away at peace. But the fact is, the longer I'm a Christian, the more I struggle when I speak with the Forgiving God. "How can you keep forgiving me?" I ask. "Look at all the years I've been a Christian, and I know better."
At my best moments, I hear a voice inside that says, "I am on your side. Go, child, and sin no more."
Another plus for me is that in some churches they have a ritual for confession as part of their worship. Either they have specific prayers the people read together or the minister prays a prayer of confession. It touches me that at the end of the prayer, the minister says, "I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven."
The pastor doesn't forgive but declares or announces the good news of our forgiveness. That comforts me. Maybe because I hear a human voice telling me biblical truth. Maybe it makes me listen objectively instead of focusing subjectively on my sinful state. Whatever the reason, when I hear those words, most of the time, I am able to take a deep breath and whisper to myself, "Cec, I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven."
And I know I am.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. --PSALMS 51:1-4a, NIV
I am forgiven. I am forgiven. I am forgiven.
In hundreds of ways you tell me this.
Help me to know and to accept
that unqualified forgiveness. Amen.
For more from Cec, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cec for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.