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Will God Forgive What I’m About To Do?
All the passages below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Finding God in Unexpected Places” published in 1997.
Steven Spielberg’s film version of The Color Purple includes a moving portrayal of a parable of grace. Sugar, a sexy, knock-’em- dead nightclub singer who works out of a ramshackle bar by the side of a river, is the classic prodigal daughter. Her father, a minister who preaches hellfire and brimstone in a church just across the way, hasn’t spoken to her in years.
One day as Sug is crooning “I’ve got somethin’ to tell you” in the bar, she hears the church choir answer, as if antiphonally, “God’s got something to tell you!” Pricked by nostalgia or guilt, Sug leads her band to the church and marches down the aisle just as her father mounts the pulpit to preach on the prodigal son.
The sight of his long-lost daughter silences the minister, and he glowers at the procession coming down the aisle. “Even us sinners have soul,” Sug explains, and hugs her father, who hardly reacts. Ever the moralist, he cannot easily forgive a daughter who has shamed him so.
The Hollywood portrayal, however, altogether misses the main point of the biblical parable. In Jesus’ version the father does not glower, but rather searches the horizon, desperate for any sign of his wayward child. It is the father who runs, throws his arm around the prodigal, and kisses him.
By making a sinner the magnanimous hero, Hollywood dodges the scandal of grace. In truth what blocks forgiveness is not God’s reticence---“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him”—--but ours. God’s arms are always extended; we are the ones who turn away. It is a wonderful truth, and one subject to devious exploitation.
Not long ago I sat in a restaurant and listened to yet another variation on a familiar theme. Daniel confided that he had decided to leave his wife after fifteen years of marriage. He had met someone younger and prettier, he said, someone who “makes me feel alive, like I haven’t felt in years.”
Daniel, a Christian, knew well the personal and moral consequences of what he was about to do. His decision to leave would inflict permanent damage on his wife and three children. Even so, he said, the force pulling him toward the younger woman was too strong to resist.
I listened to his story with sadness and grief. Then, during the dessert course, he dropped the bombshell, “The reason I wanted to see you tonight was to ask you a question. Do you think God can forgive something as awful as I am about to do?”
Historian and art critic Robert Hughes tells of a convict sentenced to life imprisonment on a maximum security island off the coast of Australia. One day with no provocation he turned on a fellow prisoner he barely knew and beat him senseless. The murderer was shipped back to the mainland to stand trial, where he gave a straightforward, passionless account of the crime, showing no sign of remorse. “Why?” asked the bewildered judge. “What was your motive?”
The prisoner replied that he was sick of life on the island, a notoriously brutal place, and that he saw no reason to keep on living. “Yes, yes I understand all that,” said the judge. “I can see why you might drown yourself in the ocean. But why murder?”
“Well, it’s like this,” said the prisoner. “I’m a Catholic. If I commit suicide I’ll go straight to hell. But if I murder I can come back here and confess to a priest before my execution. That way, God will forgive me.”
Do we fully appreciate the scandal of unconditional grace? How can I dissuade my friend Daniel from committing a terrible mistake if he knows forgiveness lies just around the corner? Or, worse, why not murder, like the Australian prisoner if you know in advance you’ll be forgiven?
The scandal of grace must have haunted the apostle Paul as he wrote the book of Romans. The first three chapters ring down condemnation on every class of human being, concluding, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” The next two chapters unveil the miracle of a grace so boundless that as Paul says, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
Paul’s tone changes in chapter 6. I can almost see the apostle staring at the papyrus and scratching his head, thinking to himself, Wait a minute! What have I said? What’s to keep a murderer, adulterer, or common sinner from exploiting God’s lavish promise of “forgiveness in advance”?
More than once in the next few chapters Paul returns to this logical predicament: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” To such a devious question he has a pithy answer (“By no means!” or, as the King James Version has it, “God forbid!”) and a lengthy one. What Paul keeps circling around in those dense, wonderful chapters (6-8) is, quite simply, the scandal of grace.
Here is what I told my friend Daniel, in a nutshell. “Can God forgive you? Of course. Read your Bible. David, Peter, Paul—--God builds his church on the backs of people who murder, commit adultery, deny him, and persecute his followers. But because of Christ, forgiveness is now our problem, not God’s. What we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God—--we change in the very act of rebellion—--and there is no guarantee we will come back. You ask me about forgiveness now, but will you even want it later, especially if it involves repentance?”
Several months after our conversation, Daniel made his choice. I have yet to see any evidence of repentance. Now he tends to rationalize his decision as a way of escaping an unhappy marriage. He has rejected most of his Christian friends—--”Too narrow-minded,” he says—--and looks instead for people who celebrate his newfound liberation.
To me, though, Daniel does not seem very liberated. The price of his “freedom” has meant turning his back on those who cared about him most. He also tells me God is not a part of his life right now. “Maybe later,” he says.
God took a great risk by announcing forgiveness in advance. It occurs to me, though, that the scandal of grace involves a transfer of that risk to us. As George MacDonald put it, we are condemned not for the wicked things we’ve done, but for not leaving them.
Holy Secrets---God’s forgiveness in advance
Almost everyone has occasion to wish for an ability to see into the future. Is this person the one I should marry? Should I accept that new job offer? How will my rebellious son turn out? If only, dear God, I could have a glimpse of the future, a mere clue as to how it will turn out, decisions would be so much simpler.
What would Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill have given for such preternatural vision during their crises of war? What would the CIA pay for certain knowledge of how Eastern Europe will look ten years from now?
As I read the Bible, though, I can begin to understand why God seldom shares inside information about the future. The plain fact is, most human beings cannot handle it.
Take the prophet Balaam, a mysterious Old Testament character who received a series of unmistakable messages from God about the Israelites’ future (although it required a talking donkey to overcome his initial resistance). In the end, Balaam failed to heed his own message, working against the very Israelites whose triumph he had predicted. He was finally executed as an enemy of God’s people. (Numbers 22—24; 31; Deuteronomy 23)
Or consider Hezekiah. One of Judah’s best kings, he received from God an unprecedented extension to his life. But once he learned of those fifteen bonus years, Hezekiah set about squandering them; in the process he sowed the seeds for his nation’s downfall and eventual captivity by Babylon. (2 Kings 18—20; 2 Chronicles 29—32; Isaiah 39)
The classic Old Testament tale of foreknowledge centers on Saul and David. The prophet Samuel delivered a similar announcement to both of them: Saul would lose the kingdom, for God had chosen another to lead the nation. King Saul spent the next decade or so in rebellion against that future, trying desperately to kill the one whom God had designated as his replacement. David, who shared the same foreknowledge, makes a striking contrast. Refusing to take the future into his own hands, he turned down several chances to depose Saul, and as a result spent those years hiding out in caves and deserts. The Psalms reveal that he sometimes wondered whether God had forgotten about the plan, but even so David remained faithful. (1 Samuel 9—31)
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul offers another example of the wise use of foreknowledge. Bad news about the future didn’t scare him: he traveled to Jerusalem despite strong warnings that a visit would result in his arrest and imprisonment. But good news about the future didn’t make him cocky or passive: after learning in a vision that all passengers would survive a shipwreck off Malta, Paul took command, giving instructions to the Roman guards and mobilizing the rescue efforts. (Acts 20—21; 27—28)
These and many other biblical examples make clear that human beings don’t easily cope with advance knowledge of the future. (Adam and Eve certainly didn’t.) They are far more likely to respond by either rebelling against bad news, as King Saul and Balaam did, or getting cocky about good news, as Hezekish did.
I once viewed foreknowledge as a “genie in a bottle” gift of magic that affords the recipient an enviable advantage. I now see it as a rather demanding test of faith. David in exile dreaming of his coronation, Hezekiah debating fifteen-year plans, the apostle Paul riding out a Mediterranean storm, even Jesus praying in Gethsemane—--all had special foresight into what end awaited them, but that hardly made the process any easier. It takes an extra measure of faith to endure with patience and obedience the long hours or years that precede whatever future you know about in advance. Ask the Old Testament prophets.
Unlike Balaam, Hezeklah, Saul, and David, most of us today do not receive a special revelation as to how our specific future will turn out. (Frankly, as I look back on their lives, I’m glad. But in at least one instance all Christians face a test of “responsible foreknowledge.” It involves the spectacular good news about God’s grace and forgiveness as revealed in Jesus’ parables and in such New Testament letters as Romans and Galatians.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul proclaims in Romans 8. That’s about as sweeping a statement as he could make—--and far more dangerous than if he had said, “Well, God can’t promise anything. There may not be any condemnation; it all depends on how you behave from now on.” It seems that God the Judge has revealed his merciful verdict even before the trial begins!
Paul seems fully aware that advance knowledge of such all-encompassing good news might be subject to abuse. That is why in Romans 6, after proving that God’s grace triumphs over all sin, he interrupts himself to ask the rhetorical question that captures the logic of someone intent on handling foreknowledge irresponsibly: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” And why a few paragraphs later he stops again—--like a preacher who realizes he’s just said something outrageous—--and rephrases the question.
The scandal of grace—--God informing us of our forgiveness in advance---is probably the closest most of us will come to certain knowledge of the future. As my friend Daniel showed, that very knowledge opens up all sorts of devious possibilities.
More and more, I have begun to see that Paul’s explosive response, “God forbid!” is the only appropriate response to human questions about exploiting God’s grace. If you’re the kind of person who seizes upon God’s grace just for the chance to push it to the limits, why, you probably haven’t understood that grace at all.
If a bridegroom on his wedding night sat down to negotiate terms of infidelity—--”OK, you’ve guaranteed the future by promising to slick with me regardless. Just how far can I go with other women? Can I hug them? Kiss them? Go to bed with them? How often? How many?”—--we would call such a husband a fraud, a pathologically sick man. If he approaches marriage that way, he will never learn the meaning of true love. And if a Christian approaches forgiveness the same way—--”Let’s see, God has promised forgiveness in advance. What can I get away with? How far can I push it?”—--that Christian will end up equally impoverished. Paul’s response says it all: “God forbid!”
I have come to view God’s grace as a matter of responsible foreknowledge, not so different from the special revelations granted a few individuals in the Old and New Testaments. We know the future—--God’s forgiveness—--and such advance knowledge presents us with a choice, a challenge of faith. We can set out to exploit God’s promises by probing the outer limits of forgiveness. On the other hand, we can live in a spirit of gratitude, secure enough in his love to follow him faithfully. It was an extravagant risk God took, entrusting us with such holy secrets. (179-186)
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