Accepting Forgiveness…Along With a Sword

Attending and subsequently volunteering in both addiction recovery and divorce ministries has brought me into close contact with a lot of people that I have grown to love…many of them in a great deal of pain, most of them almost certainly folks that I would never have gotten to know apart from the great tragedies that have marked their lives (and mine).

The common refrain to almost all of the one-on-one conversations that grow out of this kind of ministry work is that what all of us seem to want – no, crave – is a completely clean slate. We just want another shot, a chance to wipe out the huge mistakes of our past and do it right this time. Sometimes the desire for a “do-over” extends even beyond the obvious limitations of being trapped in time; many of us who have made huge mistakes can point backwards, across decades, to the exact place in our youth where we “went wrong” and began the slide that ended up costing us so dearly further on up the road.

This impossible desire is nothing new, of course; we see it showing up in pop culture all the time. For example, the Uncle Rico character in the film Napoleon Dynamite is hopelessly trapped in his desire to return to his high school football glory days, reverse the course of history and “win the big game against State.” Further examples are ridiculously easy to find, whether it’s the Back to the Future movies or even done, as a send-up, in the Austin Powers satires. Back in the 1980’s, the rock band Jefferson Starship captured this all-too-common sentiment in the last verse of their song Find Your Way Back:

I know it’s too late now,
but I wish I could go back in time
and start all over somehow,
and get it right from the start.

I’m not a huge fan of the Starship, by any means, and I wouldn’t even say that this song is necessarily a very good one, but the stark simplicity of these lyrics nevertheless has an embarrassing amount of impact on me every time I hear it. I suspect that this last verse could be used as the opening theme at every session of DivorceCare at The Crossing on Wednesday evenings, or at every AA or NA meeting in Boone County, and so on. The world is filled-to-bursting with people like me, people who deeply regret the mistakes of their past and would like to get a fresh start…”somehow.”

It’s important to remember, though, that strong emotions can often overpower sound thinking and obscure our view of biblical truth. (It happens to me all the time.)

As I often lament the mistakes I have made and the huge amounts of pain I have brought into the lives of others, I somehow “forget” that God is completely sovereign over all the details of my life (Psalm 139:1-6), even the sinful episodes that He – for reasons known only to Him – permitted. I can quickly lose track of the truth that God chose me before the foundations of the earth were laid (Ephesians 1:3-6) and that His care for me can be found in the tiny, mundane aspects of everyday living (Acts 17:24-25). In the course of living out our lives, my sins and the sins of others did not catch God by surprise (Romans 3:9-20); everything that God ordains – absolutely everything – does come to pass (Isaiah 46:8-10).

How mind-boggling, then, to know that we worship a risen Lord Who has, indeed, wiped our slates clean with His own blood. How liberating to walk “above ground” once again with the full knowledge that before God we now carry with us the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 8:16-17)! The problem that remains, of course, is how to live out this alien righteousness in the here and now.

Oftentimes the ripple effects of our sins far outlast the moment when we confessed our sin to the Lord and sought His forgiveness. For those of us with a checkered past, the anticipation of a right standing before God in all eternity can equally cause us to “forget” that we often must live out the consequences of our sins for the rest of our lives. “God Himself has forgiven me, so why is everyone else still struggling to let me get on with my life?” It’s almost as though we somehow expect that “all will be made right” in this life once we have given ourselves over to Jesus. But Scripture never, ever makes that promise. Instead of removing the circumstances that continue to cause us pain, Jesus is more likely to tell us that His grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

For me, one of the best passages in all of Scripture that addresses this issue head-on is 2 Samuel 12:1-23, in which Nathan the prophet confronts King David for his sins of deception, adultery and murder, sins that David hoped would somehow escape God’s attention. (As Keith Simon likes to say, “Sin really does make us stupid.”) The Lord, speaking through Nathan, does not mince words in his condemnation of David:

2 Samuel 12:9-10 (ESV)
“Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”

In verse 13, David quickly confesses his sin. In response, Nathan assures him that “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” but then informs David that his first son conceived by his adultery with Bathsheba will die. A bit further, we read in 2 Samuel 13:1-14 and 2 Samuel 15:6 and 12-14 that God’s judgment against David manifests itself in spades…”the sword” of pain, betrayal and death will never leave the house of David. The forgiveness of God is real, and trustworthy for eternity, yet the earthly life of a man marked by serious sin will almost certainly prove to have lifelong consequences.

I think we all want to come to Jesus and have him fix all of our problems, both here and in eternity. When He graciously declines to remove all of the circumstances that have made life painful, we may begin to doubt His goodness, or even wonder if our personal salvation is “the real deal.” It’s helpful, I think, to recall Nathan’s remark to David indicating that he (David) would not die, clearly implying that David’s sins were deserving of summary judgment and execution. I wonder if we all saw our sins in that light – worthy of death – if it might make it just a bit easier for us to deal with a lifetime of severed relationships, an incurable STD, financial ruin, rebellious children and so forth. All we really need do is take our sin seriously.

P.S. One book that has been enormously influential in changing my overall perception of the pervasiveness and seriousness of sin, and one that I strongly recommend, is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. For what it’s worth, the net effect of reading the Plantinga book has been to make me noticeably more grateful for every breath I take and every beat of my heart, both of them undeserved gifts from the Lord (Exodus 34:5-8).

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