Let’s talk about forgiveness.
Specifically, let’s talk about how we all need some.
I’ll admit to you, there was a time when I didn’t really think I needed it. I grew up going to a church where the first Sunday of each month was “Communion Sunday.” As we got ready to take communion we’d confess our sins; we’d read something out of the hymnal together that went like:
“God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart…
…we have not done your will,
We have broken your law…
…we have not loved our neighbors,
And we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.”
As a little kid I’d sit there and feel annoyed that I was supposed to read this along with everyone else. Because what if I had been perfect that month? What if I didn’t have anything to ask forgiveness for? Sometimes I’d even feel so confident in my non-need for forgiveness that I’d sit there quietly while everyone else read that part – my own little quiet protest. They might need forgiveness, but not me. I’m all good.
But I was not all good. I was just unaware; I didn’t see ways in which I was falling short. That became quickly apparent the older I got and the closer I got to God. I started to see a lot of things that I needed forgiveness for; as I understood the way God wanted me to live, I realized that I was often missing that mark. In the church, we call that kind of messing up – the kind where we’re falling short of God’s standard – “sin.” And my sins felt like a big bag of gross, smelly, trash.
Want to know what’s in my trash bag of sin?
Honestly, I don’t really want to tell you; but it’s basically lots of stuff that’s the opposite of what God wants me to do. So, you know how Jesus said the most important thing for us to do is to love God and love other people, our neighbors? Here’s when I should have spent more time with God, or when I missed a chance to be kind to someone. Or, we could think about it another way. John Wesley, the guy who started the Methodist church, said people who follow Christ ought to follow three simple rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. So… yep, in here is stuff when I actually did harm, or decided not to do good, or wandered away from God.
Yuck. I hate this stuff.
This is the kind of stuff that we all need forgiveness for, and it didn’t take me long as I grew older to figure out that I didn’t just need God’s forgiveness once a month, but more like once a day… or once a minute, even. And the awesome thing about being a Christian is that we can ask for that forgiveness, anytime, anywhere. We don’t have to wait to be in church to get it. So I started making a habit of praying for forgiveness every day. I tell God everything I can think of that I did that God wouldn’t like, or that I didn’t do that God would have liked. And then I like to throw in a “and please forgive me for the mistakes I made that I didn’t even know about,” you know, just for good measure. You gotta cover your bases, right?
And when I started doing that, it made me feel so much better. I’d feel what Rob talked about earlier, that blank piece of paper. I could tell that God let it go, released the debt. I knew I was forgiven and it felt great.
For a while.
Because – maybe you’ve noticed – this stuff is still there. It’s always there! And eventually I’d remember what I had done, or hadn’t done, and feel bad about it all over again.
If God really forgives me, why do I still feel bad about it?
I think I felt bad about it because of how I repented.
Repenting is a part of the forgiveness process. When John the Baptist was out there preparing the way for Jesus, his message was basically “repent, and be forgiven.” And when Peter, the disciple, preached his first big sermon after Jesus was gone, he told the people who wanted to follow Jesus, “Repent, and be baptized in Jesus, and be forgiven” (Acts 2:38).
I think a lot of us kind of know this, even if we haven’t read the Bible much. We know that we’re supposed to feel bad about something before we get forgiveness. Like if I snuck cookies before dinner and Mom caught me, I’d be sure to do some serious repenting – “I’m so sorry, I hate myself, I’ll never do it again” – so she’d forgive me. Right? That’s part of the process.
I do a similar thing with God about my trash bag of sins here. I want God to forgive me, so I feel really, really bad about what I did. Which is usually easy, because I actually do feel really, really bad about most of this stuff. If I don’t feel like God has forgiven me, then I must need to feel worse, right? Because I know I’m supposed to “repent.” Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I feel terrible!
But here’s the thing: “to repent” doesn’t mean to feel really, really bad about something. Or, at the very least, that’s not the most important part of it. “To repent” means to make a turn away from something; to change your mind so much that it’s like you’re going 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
So if I’m going to repent from my trash bag here, I can’t only feel really, really bad. In fact, if I feel really, really bad about it, that can actually make me do just the opposite. I keep thinking about it, fixating on it, obsessing over it, focusing on it… and have I repented? Have I turned away?
No. I have not.
What I need to do is to make that important 180 degree turn in the opposite direction. To say, “I did those things, but now I’m going a different way – I’m doing things differently.” Or, “I didn’t do those things, but now I’m going a different way – I’m doing things differently.” I’ve turned away from that sin, and I’m heading toward something new. I’m completely resolved to do better. “It’s the straight and narrow from here on out,” right?
Except, in my experience, inevitably I mess up again. I resolved to never do that thing… and then I did it. I resolved to always do this other thing… and I forgot. And now I’m back with this bag of trash.
My own resolve isn’t strong enough to keep me away from this. I can’t just make a 180 degree turn only toward my own good intentions. I mean, I need those intentions, but there’s got to be something more, something that really frees me from that sin once I’ve decided to turn away from it. I need something bigger, something stronger, something more forever than just you and me and our own self-discipline.
Can you guess what that thing is?
When we turn 180 degrees away from our own sin, we aren’t turning toward ourselves and our own willpower, but toward Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is the one who died on the cross and took all our bags of sin with him. If we want forgiveness, the key isn’t feeling bad enough, or changing our lives enough. The key is turning away from our sin and toward the only one who can truly set us free from it.
Would you like to do that right now?
Stand up and face the back wall.
I want you to imagine some sin, some mistake you’ve made. Try to picture it as clearly as you can, right in front of you. It could be a bad choice you should have avoided, or maybe something good that you decided not to do. Whatever it is, try to picture it in front of you as clearly as you can.
Now repent: turn 180 degrees away from it.
That sin – that mistake – is still back there, right? But we have decided to turn away from it. We are changing our minds about it so much, it’s like we’re heading in a different direction.
And here is what you’re turning toward: