It’s no secret that Rabbi Harold Kushner is one of my favorite spiritual thinkers and I hope you’ll indulge more thoughts on his writings. I recognize that among my small group of subscribers there are many different approaches to life, and I honor and respect everyone’s spiritual journey. Whether you don’t believe in a God, or are deeply committed to a religious tradition (or anywhere in between), I think there’s always value in evaluating your relationship to the divine. Even Jonathan Haidt, an ardent atheist describes the importance of finding awe and wonder in the universe to bring more meaning and depth to our lives.

But what happens when your current thoughts and life experience contradict previous beliefs? Over his time as a Rabbi, Kushner frequently met with members of his congregation who questioned the existence of a divine being. His response echoed the great Protestant preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. Rather than argue and present facts to prove the existence of a God, he offered up the the following: “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in. There are lots of gods I don’t believe in. Maybe we’ll discover that we both reject the same notion of God, and then maybe we can find an understanding of God that we both can accept.”

This brings up the concept of reconciliation – the act of making one view or belief compatible with another. If we are truly engaged in examining our lives, at one point or another we will be faced with this challenge (or opportunity). What if the God you were taught to believe in no longer rings true to your current views? Do you have the courage to seek to reconcile those beliefs?

This week I wanted to offer up a talk I gave a few months ago in a church meeting that reflects the changes I’ve gone through with respect to God’s grace in my life. I recognize that this is a little outside my typical writing, but I hope there’s someone out there who will find value in my thoughts. It’s a little long, so I won’t be offended if you don’t read it 🙂

The Joy of Forgiveness

I’d like to open my talk today sharing a thought from one of my favorite podcasters, Susan Hinkley. She and Cynthia Winward host the podcast At Last She Said It. I frequently joke that listening to mormon feminists is one of my guilty pleasures.

Paraphrasing Susan:

Through the Atonement, Jesus comes down to meet us where we stand- He sees us for who we are in that moment and offers empathy and compassion. It his how Christ knows exactly what it’s like to be me.

Grace fills the gap between us, and is the power that lifts us up to where He is. It’s the promise that the future will bring the heaven we seek. More importantly, it’s the power that lifts us up to find peace and joy in the world we live in, today.

I love this distinction between atonement and grace- an that idea has caused me much reflection. I believe it confirms what Nephi, in the Book of Mormon, said, that “we are saved through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah…. Who shall make intercession for all the children of men.”

We are saved by the merits, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ. He meets us where we are and lifts us up to where he is.

Today I will focus my remarks on the preeminent role of grace in experiencing the Joy of Forgiveness. I think my message will be thought-provoking for some. I hope that my message will be inspiring and expansive for all. To quote St Theresa of Lisieux, “Grace is Everything.”

By the end I hope will all know that I am a “grace peddler.”

I’ll start by sharing the story of the rich man found in Mark chapter 10.

“And when he was gone forth into the way there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?

And Jesus said unto him, why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.

Thou knowest the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, defraud not, honor thy father and mother.

And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.

Then Jesus, beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsover thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

And he was sad at the saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.”

Jesus goes on to discuss further the idea of putting our trust in the riches of this earth, which is a topic for another day. But for our purposes, I believe it teaches us that the checklist gospel is insufficient to save, because it doesn’t allow for us to surrender ourselves completely to God. This man was focused on the law, the idea that his works would qualify him for eternal life. It did not prepare him to give everything and therefore was not able to accept Christ as his Savior.

In the parable of the prodigal son we again see this contrast – The prodigal son takes his inheritance and leaves his father for a life of riotous living. In moments of deep pain and suffering he recognizes the choices that led to separation from his previous life. He has lost everything. In humility he returns home in hopes of finding work as a servant.

“But when he was a long way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

But the father immediately received his son back into his household and celebrated his return.

Not once does Jesus focus on the requirements needed to obtain forgiveness for his grievous sins. It is a matter of turning to the Father and accepting Christ as our Savior.

Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr said, “It is at the bottom where we find grace: for like water, grace seeks the lowest place, and there it pools up.

Contrast the prodigal son with the older son, whose focus was living the law with exactness. He felt anger at his brother’s return, rather than joy. Clearly the checklist gospel was insufficient to save the older brother. It doesn’t have the power to save us.

I think often of my experience of growing up in the church as a strict adherent to all the rules. On the outside I looked like a strong member full of righteousness and obedience. On the inside I lived a life of guilt and shame. At that time many church leaders focused on exact obedience. Almost like the atonement was a backup plan for when perfection didn’t work out. I thrived on feelings of not being enough as motivation to get better. If I was hard enough on myself, happiness was within reach. Yet that happiness and joy was almost always elusive. There had to be a better way but I just couldn’t see it!

I remember vividly being taught the parable of the bicycle – the one about the boy who wanted a bicycle he could not afford. He worked and worked and when the time came he was far short of the needed amount to purchase the bike. At that moment his father stepped in and paid the difference and everyone was happy. The bike represented salvation. The father represented Jesus Christ and his ability to pay the difference though the atonement.

The unwritten, but implied idea was that the truly righteous and faithful would work the hardest, and minimize the difference that Christ would have to make up. The truly righteous would minimize Christ’s contribution.

Unfortunately these teachings were damaging to my ability to feel close to God. Like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, I was focused on the law. I would be the one who closed the gap between me and Jesus through my own works.

It took me a very long time to realize that my acts were insufficient to save. I was on the hamster wheel of proving my own worth. The checklist gospel did not bring me closer to my Savior. For every time I made a deposit in my eternal piggy bank, something would happen that led to an even bigger withdrawal. At times it felt like I was smashing the piggy bank to pay for trinkets. I was hustling to show my worthiness, but was making little, if any progress forward. With many frustrating days filled with depression and unhappiness, life often felt hopeless.

What the parable gets wrong is the idea that there is an actual finite price that can be placed on the bicycle. If we believe our own teachings, we must see that the gap between us and salvation is infinite. The cost of the bicycle is infinity.Therefore, no matter how many deposits we make, we are no closer because infinity minus any number is still infinity. Let me repeat. Infinity minus any number is still infinity. All we can do is recognize that we are fully dependent on Christ to save.

Let’s look at a few teachings from Christ’s life that illustrate this.

The book of John describes the account of scribes and pharisees who bring to Christ a woman taken in the very act of adultery. Clearly she had not had time to work through the steps of repentance. The law required her to be stoned. Hoping to catch Jesus they asked what he would do.

His response: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

Being convicted by their own conscience, they went out one by one, even unto the last, til it was just Jesus and the woman.

“Woman, where are thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?

She said, No man, Lord.

And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

Jesus met this woman where she was, and through his grace, he lifted her to a place where she stood alone with God, where she felt his perfect love.

With this story in mind, might Jesus just be willing not to condemn us of our sins? Might we be a little too concerned of condemning ourselves?

Luke recounts the story of a woman, known to all to be a sinner, who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and anoints him with alabaster ointment. The pharisees criticize Jesus, for if he were a prophet he would know what manner of woman touched him – a sinner. 

Jesus answers with parable of a creditor with two debtors – one who owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. The debtor forgives both and Christ asks which of them will love him the most. Simon, the pharisee, correctly replies that it’s the one who was forgiven most. Christ expounds on this answer to the pharisees, those who were obsessed with strict observance of the law.

Christ said, “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”

I want to focus on this story of a minute – Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much. Please let that idea sink in. What led to her forgiveness?

From Matthew 25:

“Then shall the king say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

Then shall the righteous answer him saying, when did we do all these things?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

It was not the woman’s ability to adhere strictly to a set of prescribed laws, or her ability to check off the boxes of repentance. It was her ability to love. It was her ability to serve. It was her adherence to the two great commandments- love of God and love of fellow men.

I believe that this and many other stories from the life of Christ teach of his willingness to offer grace to all willing to accept it. They don’t plead to him with a list of things they have done to deserve his forgiveness. They simply approach Jesus, in their deep hurt, and ask him to accept them as they are – as fallen human beings, in need of love. They rely fully on the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.

I can see Christ asking not what do they deserve, but what do they need? Can we start to do the same?

Hearing these stories, does it make you reflect on how you have approached Jesus for forgiveness? Have you missed out on the joy of forgiveness because you have focused too much on what you lack? Have you missed out on opportunities to serve because you were too busy hustling for your worthiness? Are you unwilling to accept the grace of Jesus Christ because it seems like the easy way out? Is it not sufficient for you? At one point it wasn’t sufficient for me.

In latin, the word salvation means solace. Solace is healing – the placing of salve on a wound. With this definition forgiveness becomes  a seeking out of healing from the Master Healer.

When we stop worrying so much about proving ourselves, and accept our inherent worthiness as children of god, we are free to do the Jesus work. We are free to lift the hands of those who hang down. We are free to comfort those in need of comfort. We are free to love.

I remember a number of years ago, sitting in elder’s quorum starting to explore my thoughts on forgiveness. After the discussion, I made a powerful declaration to myself that I would no longer use guilt and shame as a means for motivation to do better. My focus has become lifting and blessing others. I have learned to love myself. It’s been a process and I know that I haven’t been perfect.

But it wasn’t until I shed the practice of judging myself and others that I came to accept the grace of Christ in my own life. With a gap that is infinite, all I can do is accept him as my Savior and attempt to live a life that reflects his goodness and teachings. I have fallen short many times since that day, but I have felt unquestionably that I’m on the path back to God.

If you are seeking to feel the joy of forgiveness in your life, and the checklist gospel isn’t working for you, I encourage you to ask God to lift the burden of guilt and shame. I know it’s out there because I have lived it. I know it’s out there because I’ve seen it. It’s not until you choose to see yourself as God sees you that you’ll feel his true love in your life. It’s not until you love yourself as God loves you that you will be able to love your neighbor. And then you will truly be following the two great commandments. Then you will experience the true joy of forgiveness.

I want to close with a quote from one of my favorite Christian authors Rachel Held Evans. Speaking of grace she says:

The ultimate denial of grace, then, is not to misunderstand it theologically, but to withhold it. The minute we withhold grace because of some prejudice or fear on our part, it becomes nothing more than a doctrine.

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from ourselves. 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from one another.

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from the world.  

When I look ahead to my thirties, the quality I most want to nurture is grace—for myself, for the people around me, and for this planet I call home. I want to be less judgmental and more open. I want to be quicker to forgive myself when I make a mistake. I want to look for the divine under every stone, down every forgotten street, and in every puddle of rain. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. I want to make more casseroles and give more time.  I want to listen better to those who live differently than me. I want to forgive. I want to let go.  I want to relax a little and let my guard down and not take things quite so seriously.

I want grace to move from my head into my heart and into my hands….

PS: I’m almost finished reading How Minds Change by David McRane my book for July/August.

 

  • Stuart
    10 months ago
    That is a beautiful talk. My favorite line: “ At times it felt like I was smashing the piggy bank to pay for trinkets.” I love asking the question, “Why do I obey?” Perhaps an even better question is, “Why do I try to obey?” And I’m not talking about obedience to just the commands of a Devine being, I’m also talking about obedience to the laws of our society and natural laws, too. Do I obey out of fear of a consequence? Sometimes. Especially when it comes to traffic laws. Do I obey out of faith, hoping that a promised blessing will come if I do (a testimony if I read and pray, forgiveness if my heart is broken and spirit contrite, a scholarship if I study hard, better health if I exercise and eat well?) Sometimes. Especially when I’m weak and need a little extra prize waiting for me. Or do I obey out of Charity, a love of Christ and of my fellow brothers and sisters, just because I am grateful and want to see others have peace and happiness? Not as often as I wish I did. I think some people like the concept of a checklist gospel because it keeps them motivated to obey, so that they “qualify” for certain blessings (one of which may be forgiveness.) You highlight well the pitfalls of this approach. Will my best ever be good enough to qualify when I am such an unprofitable servant? I sometimes get a sense that others think we need to be working really hard to qualify for blessings, because they think God uses blessings as more immediate-term incentives to keep us on a path of progression. They might worry that if forgiveness is given to freely, then we will be free loaders throughout eternity, never getting off the proverbial couch, content to receive our “free” forgiveness without putting in any work to progress. I have found the most peace and success, however, when I accept my Savior’s grace and the full blessings of forgiveness despite (and because of) my continual shortcomings. So what then motivates me to continue with good works if salvation and grace come so bountifully and are so freely given? When my mind is clear and in those moments of reevaluation, I continue to try for perhaps two main reasons. First, because I believe my Savior asks me to, and I want to show some small, albeit vastly inadequate, token of gratitude for such an immense gift. Second, because I really do want to become a better person and someday maybe even live up to the picture He has painted for me of what I might be able to become. I love the idea that there is a loving deity willing to forgive me now, right where I am, so that I can have peace and rest in a troubled world. And at the same time nudge and inspire me to do better and become something greater, all at my own pace, taking each step of progression based on my own agency. How awesome that I get to choose what areas to focus on and when to focus them.
    • Nate
      10 months ago
      Thanks Stu ❤️