When I was a young Christian, I often used to have a nagging sense that when bad things happened to me, it was because I deserved them. If my car broke down, or some other unforeseen crisis occurred, somewhere in the almost-unconscious regions of my heart, I would wonder which of my particular catalogue of sins had brought this calamity upon me. As a result, I lived under a constant burden of feeling that I needed to up my game and be a better person if I wanted to avoid disaster.
The flip side of this was that when things were going well or when I experienced what is often called “good fortune”, such as a financial windfall or a promotion at work, I would be plagued by a barely perceptible but nevertheless very real sense that I didn’t deserve it. In fact, the more good things came my way, the less I felt I deserved them – and the more I felt I was somehow living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, fate would catch up with me, my luck would run out and I’d get what I deserved.
Living with these kinds of feelings, and the resulting constant sense of unworthiness and foreboding they engendered, did not make me an especially happy bunny.
A few days ago, as I was reflecting on some recent events in my life, I had a startling realisation: after thirty plus years as a Christian, and having come to what I thought was a much broader and deeper understanding of God’s love and grace, I am still carrying around some of this baggage even now. Those destructive feelings may not be as strong as they once were; they may be lying low much of the time; but they are still there at some level and able to exert a surprisingly powerful influence as soon as something happens to stir them into life.
It occurs to me that, paradoxically, coming to a greater awareness of the grace of God can, in fact, further entrench these kinds of negative feelings rather than free us from them. Believing that God is so good as to constantly lavish unmerited favour upon us can, perversely, make us even more convinced that we are undeserving worms who will eventually get our comeuppance.
I’ve also come to realise that the way in which many Christians understand forgiveness and salvation serves to subtly reinforce this kind of “worm theology”. If the point of Jesus’ death is that it saves us by sparing us the penalty that we ultimately deserve, it does nothing to alter our basic condition of being undeserving wretches. And it maybe even adds a dose of guilt that poor Jesus had to die because we’re such terrible human beings.
My belief is that God forgives us not because of any kind of transaction at the cross, but because it is his nature to forgive, freely and without payment or condition.
Note what I am not saying here: I am not saying that sin doesn’t matter or is without consequence, or that Jesus’ death was unnecessary. However, I absolutely am saying that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a prerequisite for God to forgive us.
I recently took part in a discussion about the atonement in which I contended that God forgives freely and without the need for any kind of payment. One of the participants who pushed back very strongly against my view had this to say: “When a debt is cancelled, it doesn’t cease to exist. Somebody eats it: the payee. The idea is that Christ, on the cross, was eating the debt as the payee.” In fact, this is quite a common response to the suggestion that God forgives freely. And, at face value, it’s quite hard to argue with.
But here’s the thing: that kind of logic only makes sense if you operate entirely within an economy of exchange. What I mean by an “economy of exchange” is a worldview or paradigm within which every action must be balanced by a counter-action and every wrong offset by a right. In such a worldview, nothing is free: ultimately, everything comes at a price. If even one exception is made to that rule, the whole system falls apart.
The thing is, as human beings we find it almost impossible not to see the world through the lens of an economy of exchange. We default to thinking in binaries: good and evil, right and wrong, winners and losers, just and unjust, and so on. We define justice in terms of wrongdoing being paid for by appropriate punishment. And we’re trained to relate to the world from a perspective of merit and demerit. Indeed, the most successful of us are those who have understood that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Small wonder, then, that we tend to assume that God sees the world in a similar way. (And small wonder that many of the authors of the Bible made that assumption, too.)
But what if God simply doesn’t see the world through such a lens? What if an economy of exchange is purely a product of human culture, something that is completely alien to God’s way of thinking and being? What if that’s what Isaiah meant when he wrote that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts? If that is the case – and I increasingly believe that it is – then God is perfectly able to forgive us without any need for or expectation of payment in return.
Again, note what I’m not saying: I’m not suggesting, for example, that we should abandon all notions of right or wrong, or that societies don’t need some kind of law and order, underpinned by a justice system, in order to function.
But maybe it’s time to begin to venture beyond the boundaries of our limited ideas about God and the way he thinks and sees. Maybe it’s time to realise that even the very best “systems” we can come up with to manage our lives and societies are not only worlds but galaxies apart from how God operates.
Letting go of long-held convictions can be a scary prospect. Realising that the entire worldview through which you’ve viewed the universe might be not only terribly limited but, in fact, on the wrong plane altogether can be disconcerting to say the least. But wouldn’t it be tragic if God really is offering all of humanity forgiveness full and free and many of his avowed followers are depriving themselves of its benefits because they insist on confining God inside a box of their own making?
[ Image: GotCredit ]