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A Merciful God

 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:1-2

If there were a Golden Boy in the Bible – the high school jock blessed with athletic ability, good looks, confidence, popularity, and who could seemingly do no wrong (even when doing wrong) – it would be David. He was perhaps the king of all sinners in the Bible, and yet God used him in mighty ways. There is no greater example of God’s unquenchable mercy than in the story of David.

In the 11th chapter of 2 Samuel we find King David on the roof of his palace. He observed a very beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the roof of her home. David sent for and slept with her. Bathsheba became pregnant, posing an embarrassing problem since her husband, Uriah, was away fighting one of David’s wars. In a lame attempt to make it look like the baby was Uriah’s, David had Uriah leave the battle and come home to his wife. Uriah, troubled by the fact that he was home and his fellow soldiers were not, refused to sleep with his wife and returned to the battle. David ordered that Uriah be sent to the front of the battle where he would most certainly be killed. Uriah died, freeing Bathsheba for David to take as his wife. In a relatively short period of time, David used his position and power to commit adultery and murder. The cowboy philosopher of the last century, Will Rogers, said, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Unfortunately for David, that sage advice came a few thousand years too late.

Psalm 51 was written by David sometime after these events as his way of seeking God’s mercy for his despicable behavior. The Psalm provides sage insight into the merciful face of God, as well as how we can experience it. First and foremost is that contrition is internal. This may seem obvious, but too often, even in biblical times, we prefer to make amends outside of ourselves through sacrifices and other methods that only serve to mask the demons lurking within us. Until those demons are exposed, however, we keep digging ourselves into the same holes. In Psalm 51:17, David writes, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” If our transgressions do not break something inside of us, opening us to new understandings, building a desire for change, and teaching us new ways to behave, we cannot receive God’s mercy. If we are not sufficiently willing to allow God to change us from within, God’s love and mercy towards us will never stick. It is not that God withholds mercy from us as much as we are not in a state to receive it.

In Psalm 51:6, David writes, “You desire truth in my inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Likewise, in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Wisdom is internal, and we must open ourselves – make space –for it to enter. In the New Testament, this is called repentance, or turning ourselves around.

I believe we suffer, collectively, from a poor self-image. Either we forget, or we are afraid to believe the image and likeness from which we were created. We feel unworthy to receive the mercy of God because we focus on our sin instead of our destiny. We forget that we are always in a process of growing toward our destiny, our union with God. In God’s eyes, our sins are not so much evil as they are growing pains. Every child falls many times before he or she attains the ability to walk confidently and competently. We do not think less of them for their clumsiness; we lovingly help them back up.

In spite of his numerous human frailties, David went on to become Israel’s most celebrated and beloved leader. While David and Bathsheba’s first child died young, they had another son, Solomon, who became another accomplished and beloved leader for Israel. If God showed mercy to one displaying the growing pains of David, how much more must God be willing to show mercy to us? And, as God shows mercy to us, how much more should we show mercy to each other?

Note: this is the eighteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 21: Sin is its own Punishment

 Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you. John 5:14c

In my opinion, there are a number of misconceptions about sin. First and foremost is that sin is offensive to God. We are created in the image of God, and it is an inescapable consequence of our being that we sin. God may not be amused, but God is not surprised. A second misconception is that God keeps track of our sins and, like a big Santa-in-the-Sky, one too many puts us on the dreaded Bad Child List. Another misconception is that we must somehow be purified of our sinful nature in order to be loved and accepted by God.

For me, one way to view sin is like hitting my thumb with a hammer. There is no one to blame except me, and the resulting pain serves as an effective teacher to become more attentive in the future. As I noted in an earlier Life Note (July 28, 2016), sin is that which separates us from God and others. God does not abandon us in our sin, but we separate ourselves from our awareness of God’s loving presence as a natural consequence of our sin. If we believe, as I do, that God lives in, through, and with us, then God must suffer with us in our sin. If we become obese and live with diabetes or other health issues, God suffers with us. If we commit a crime that lands us in jail, God joins us in our cell. Similarly, when we suffer an illness or condition with no traceable connection to anything we have ever done, God never abandons us. So, the consequences of sin are never just borne by us, God shares our burdens with us. God never leaves us, however, nor does God love us any less passionately. It is only our awareness of God’s love that waxes and wanes.

Frequently, it is our suffering that motivates us to make needed changes. When life is pain-free and comfortable, we naturally try to maintain the status quo. When we hold to the status quo too tightly, however, we do not grow. The Gospel is an invitation to grow toward Christ, to become evermore Christ-like. Paradoxically, our sin – at least the pain of separation it causes – motivates us to grow in ways that help us better experience God’s presence. God neither wants nor wills our sin or suffering. But whenever  we hurt, God crawls into the hole – or onto the cross – with us. Contrary to how it may feel at the time, God never runs from our suffering, God runs to it. And in our times of darkness, we find ourselves craving an ever nearer experience of the divine. We are motivated to transform those actions that separate us from what is good – our sin – and grow toward a life more expressive of loving union with God and others. Because sin is its own punishment, God neither has to keep track of our sin, nor specifically punish us for it. The price of sin is automatically included in the cost.

Sin is its own punishment. How did I miss that?

uncovering-god-book-and-cd-covers

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 5: Sin is Separation

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

At an early age, I learned I was a sinner. I believed my thoughts and actions were unacceptable to God, and the only thing I could do about it was try to hide my awful nature. I pretended to be a “good, little boy” to friends and relatives, and especially to people at church, so they would consider me one of them – the “good” and the “chosen” – instead of the wretched misfit I thought myself to be. I am not certain how I came to believe I was such a terrible person – I suspect it was at church. I do not recall my parents instilling an aberrant self-belief, but sin was a weekly topic in the church where I grew up. That God knew my every thought and watched my every action convinced me I would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. As an adult, I accepted I was not worse than other folks I knew, so if I were condemned to hell, I would be in good company. I realized that everyone sins, and sin is a common and shared characteristic, more than something I alone struggled with.

Today, however, I view sin differently. I read once that sin is separation, and that concept opened up an entirely new understanding of sin for me: Sin is what sets us apart – apart from God and apart from each other. When I sin against you, I do something that divides us, something that harms our relationship. In order to restore our relationship, I must confess my sin (admit I did wrong), repent (meaning “turn around” or change or apologize), and seek your forgiveness (ask you to reengage our relationship). That sounds like a pretty natural and common progression in any relationship worth maintaining.

Traditionally, we track the “original” sin to the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve defying God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “punishment” was expulsion from the Garden, where they had enjoyed a direct, unfettered relationship with God. In other words, they separated from God. I now believe the original sin was not the eating of the fruit, but the leaving of the Garden itself – their willful separation from God. The very act of a soul taking on flesh and blood and becoming human is an act of separation – a sinful act, if you will – because as humans we enter a reality that appears individualistic and separate. From our human vantage point, we cannot see God, and we cannot see our interconnectedness with each other. We believe ourselves to be separate, independent entities, and that separation is the illusion at the root of most of our problems.

At times, we Christians are quick to point out the sins of others and equally remiss in pointing out the divine grace and forgiveness that is as close as their next breath. In the very act of judging another, we commit sin by driving a wedge between another and ourselves.Sin – creating division with others – is its own punishment. God need not punish us further. In fact, God reaches out to rejoin with us. When I was a child, I had a miserable self-image because I did not feel worthy to be in close relationship with others. Yet, close relationship is what we were created for, and is the reality behind the illusion. Without it, we are miserable.

Sin is separation. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

The Greatest is Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

To abide means to continue, to remain, to stay. It elicits images of stability and permanence. Therefore, when Paul says “faith, hope, and love abide,” he separates these qualities apart as uniquely enduring. While we know that much of what we work for on earth – homes, cars, clothing, food – will not endure, these are the priorities that consume many of our waking hours. We seldom lay awake at night worrying about a lack of faith, hope, or love. Instead, we worry about a lack of money, or a meeting with an unpleasant co-worker, or an appointment with the doctor about an abnormal test result. Faith, hope, and love are not commodities we can purchase, steal, or trade, but they are characteristics we can develop. Some come more naturally to certain people than others, but all of us are capable of cultivating a more-than-sufficient degree of all three.

Because Paul says the greatest of these is love, I think it is fair to assume that faith and hope are components of love. If we are to love others in the ways described in 1 Corinthians 13, we must have faith in the innate goodness of others, or their worthiness of our attention. Such goodness is not always obvious, but when we recognize that everyone is a child of God, we accept that everyone is loved and valued by God. We connect in love with their image-of-God essence, attempting to look beyond their all-to-human exterior. A loving relationship also inspires hope. There is an optimism in loving relationships that springs from the knowledge that all things are possible and, in the end, all things work together for good. We always hope for the best for those we love.

As we look in-depth at 1 Corinthians 13, we begin to picture the expansive and inclusive nature of love. It permeates every created thing and connects us all. Love is the thread of our interdependence, connecting us together as one – whether or not we ever recognize or affirm our unity. Love expresses intensely in committed relationships, but goes well beyond romance. Love is the essence from which we spring and the destination to which we journey. Love is God, and God is love. Without love we cannot recognize God’s presence in our lives, nor can we love ourselves or others as we should. We feel separate and out-of-step with life’s rhythms. Ultimately, the most pervasive sin of our time is that of separation – failure to recognize our unity with God and others. Separation, like all sin, is its own punishment. It makes us miserable, it makes us feel unworthy, and it makes us feel alone. Love is the antidote to sin and separation. Where faith and hope abide, love grows – and so will we!

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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