A Forgiving God
Reflections and a Prayer on Psalms 25:11, 12.
Forgiveness — the pardon of sins — is a central issue in Christianity. Jesus has made it so and has taught us to pray: "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
Yet, it is also such a difficult issue. A friend recently asked if I have forgiven the United Methodist Bishop who is responsible for alienating my family from the United Methodist Church and causing me to retire earlier than I had expected to — and I said: "Yes — in words." When there is a deep wound, the pain is still there, and the anger still arises. Do the words mean anything? When time and time again, you have to pray "Lord, give me the grace to forgive my enemy" you have to wonder if there is ever hope for you.
I just mention that because I know I'm not alone in having this problem. Those people who have done things that have caused wounds — especially those who have done it quite deliberately and knowingly — are hard to forgive. There are people I know who have been treated unfairly and unjustly. There are people I know who have been abused. And, the problem with forgiveness is that it seems to say that all that was okay. To let go of the anger and the outrage seems to give in to injustice — to give permission for their abuser to do it again to someone else.
Forgiveness is freeing and liberating — it means letting go so that the things that have been done to us, so they do not shape us or distort our character. It means finding freedom. It is a wonderful ting, but by no means easy.
But, there is also another level upon which forgiveness is difficult. It is hard to forgive ourselves. We disappoint ourselves. We don't live up to our own highest ideals. Our errors and our sins and our obsessions and our addictions are an embarrassment even to ourselves. What is the point of even trying to walk the path of holiness when we are clearly so bad at it?
So, forgiveness is problematic in every way. We talk about it freely — and can hardly help it since it is such a central theme in the Christian faith — but living it is difficult. We go about the business of our lives, only to find that our wounds and resentments and frustrations rise up in our minds quite unbidden.
I think we can only travel down the road of forgiveness when we trust in a forgiving God. It is the character of the God we trust that shapes our character. We learn to forgive by following Jesus Christ — who lived out the life of forgiveness and trust.
And, it is this line of thought that makes verses 11 & 12 of Psalm 25 so remarkable.
לְמַעַן־שִׁמְךָ יְהוָה וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנִי כִּי רַב־הוּא
"For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great."
What is the basis of God's forgiveness? Nothing but God's own character.
The psalmist (David?) is open and vulnerable before God — there is no pretense or denial. His guilt is great. Actually, that's one of the reasons it is nice to imagine this psalm as spoken by David. The Old Testament tells us not only of David's accomplishments but also of his sins and failures. We see the human side of the Biblical characters — and with David this is especially true. The man after God's own heart was also a sinner.
And, what reason could a sinner have for thinking that God would forgive?
The only appeal here is "for your name's sake, O YHWH." Here God's name (שֵׁם) refers to God's reputation. The word שֵׁם can mean renown or fame. I think the Old Testament writers often took a step back from talking about God per se to talking about God's name — that is, what they knew of God. So, to some degree it can refer to God's character — what was known of God. The Hebrews display a certain reticence in speaking of God. Instead of saying, "glory to God," for example, they will say instead "glory to God's name." They knew that God was greater than their ideas of God. And, their words could never fully capture the full reality of who God is. But, God had given them a name (שֵׁם) — and by this they knew God. There were things they could say about YHWH — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — which experience had shown to be true.
And, one thing they could say is spoken in verse 8: "Good and upright is YHWH." It is of God's essential character to display a never-gives-up love that takes sinners back and restores them. Why should God forgive? For the sake of his own reputation.
God forgives because it is in God's nature to forgive. There is no further level of explanation than this. Why does a mother love her son? It is in her nature — it is a matter of who she is and who he is. Why does God love and forgive? Because God is God — and because we are the people with whom God seeks relationship. That's it. That's all the explanation there is. So, in our guilt and sin we come to this God and say: "For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great."
מִי־זֶה הָאִישׁ יְרֵא יְהוָה יוֹרֶנּוּ בְּדֶרֶךְ יִבְחָר
"Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose."
God meets us where we are — even in our sin and guilt — to lead us on into the life of righteousness and peace. As preachers often say: God meets us where we are, but God does not leave us where we are.
As verse 8 says: "[God] instructs sinners in the way."
Those who have respect for God are taught how to choose correctly. God leads us forward into the way of life. Jesus states it in the Gospel of John in terms of love rather than fear: he says, "if you love me you will keep my commandments."
We are in need of being taught. We are not purely instinctive creatures — knowing from birth our role and place in life. We require instruction. We look to God to teach us the way. And, in Scripture and in prayer and in the community of faith and in the experience of life we gain wisdom that, then, guides our choices.
The God we meet in Scripture is a God who forgives and teaches. The only hope we have of finding and living in the life of forgiveness is to be met and forgiven and instructed by this God.
O Lord God,
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
God of King David,
Whom we know through Jesus Christ,
Meet us in our sin and hurt and confusion,
We open our hearts to You without pretense,
Pardon our guilt, for it is great;
And teach us the way of forgiveness,
To let go of our resentments and anger,
To trust that Your ways are good and just
To believe that you know and see.
Teach us Your ways.
And, when we stumble
Grant us grace
That we might seek you again
And find our way onto Your Path of grace and life.
We pray this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.