On repentance. And on feeling too guilty to turn to God in repentance.
Part of the Lord’s Prayer is the line, “Forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (it all depends on the translation) “as we forgive those who sin/trespass against us/our debtors.” It’s one line in the whole of the prayer.
But there’s a whole category of prayer which consists of asking God’s forgiveness for sins. Sometimes as part of the bargain with God; we wanna make sure we have a clean slate with God before we start negotiating with him for stuff. But most of the time it’s because we’ve sinned, we know it, we feel bad or guilty about it, and we wanna repent and get right with God.
Emotions vary. Some of us, when we’re praying, get mighty weepy. Lying on the floor, mascara running, blubbering, sobbing, and so forth. I’m not one of those; I’m the type that’s more annoyed with myself for repeating the same stupid behavior again. Far less weeping; far more angry self-recrimination. Still others are upset, frustrated, exasperated, resigned, furious, woebegone… There’s no one way people feel, and they won’t feel the same way every single time. But the one thing we have in common isn’t emotion, but unhappiness. We fell short of God’s glory. So we repent.
(Well… some of us don’t repent. We just feel bad about being on the wrong side of God. But we have no plans to change our behavior any. I’ll discuss that rotten attitude elsewhere.)
There are two ways Christians approach the “Forgive me” prayer. Some of us are just miserable about it. Others of us are blasé: “Hey, sin is part of life, and God knows I’m not perfect.” There are attitudes in between, but these are the main two extremes found in Christians: Those who don’t trust God’s grace enough, and those who take it for granted. There’s a happy medium in there somewhere. That’s what we need to seek. Sin should bother us. But God has us covered,
The burden of the bother.
Still, I’ve met those Christians where the “Forgive me” prayer doesn’t take away their bother. They apologize to God for everything. They confess their sins to everyone. They still feel horribly unworthy of God’s love.
And don’t give ’em the old platitude, “Well you’re not worthy of God’s love—and that’s why God’s grace is so awesome, ’cause your worthiness doesn’t matter.” I warn you in advance: It’s not gonna make ’em feel any better. The reason they’re afraid is they lack faith. Not because they haven’t heard the latest really good Christian T-shirt slogan. All the saying does, is remind ’em they’re not worthy. Not make ’em feel any more secure.
Some of this insecurity comes from lousy Christian teachers who overdo it when they speak out against sin. I’ve had more than one youth pastor tell us, “Every time you sin, it’s just one more burden added to Jesus’s back on that cross.” That didn’t help either. I kept imagining my sins, traveling back through time, piling onto Jesus, making him weigh a thousand pounds on that cross, making the nails drag into him that much more. Yeah, discourage kids from sin, but don’t give ’em nightmarish visions.
’Cause here’s the unintended side effect of this overemphasis on our sin: We don’t sin less. We pray less.
Y’see, humans sin. Kids and new Christians sin more. ’Cause they don’t know any better! ’Cause they’re not spiritually mature; ’cause they’re short on self-control. Making them feel more guilty about sin does not make ’em become more spiritually mature in a hurry. It means they look for the quick fix: “How can I stop feeling so guilty?” Well, there are three routes:
- Learn about cheap grace: “Sin all you like, for God forgives all.”
- Join the Christian libertines: “Nothing’s a sin anymore, for Jesus abolished the Law!”
- Stop praying. Avoid God. He’ll only make you feel bad about yourself.
At different times, I tried all of ’em.
The stop-praying route is probably the most common. If we never talk to God, we never have to apologize for our sins. And Christians can go big long stretches without prayer. We’ll only do rote prayers, in church or over meals, but never anything more. We’ll “save it up” for Sunday services or confession. Or longer: We’ll go months, years, without talking to God, dodging it when we can, and letting that totally unnecessary guilt trip build up to a crazy level.
Cheap grace is the next most common: “God has so much grace, all is forgiven. You can do anything. Seriously, anything. You’re good.” As a result, these Christians are indistinguishable from pagans: Same lifestyle. Only difference is the Christians figure they’re right with God, so it’s okay for them to be jerks. The pagans have no such license. (They’ll try other justifications though.)
When we sin, there’s Jesus.
The fact “Forgive us” is part of the Lord’s Prayer indicates Jesus expects us to ask forgiveness in just about every prayer. ’Cause we’re gonna sin. Over time we’ll grow to sin less, but we’ll slip up. Again and again and again. We’ll spend the rest of our lives offering the “Forgive me” prayer to God.
And that’s fine. It’s a constant, regular reminder we owe God everything. It’s not meant to create, nor trigger, guilt. There might be those days when you didn’t sin, but when you recite the Lord’s Prayer again, there’s that “Forgive us” in it—because it’s a reminder. Not a condemnation. A reminder we must forgive others. A reminder God forgives us.
The “cheap grace” fans are correct: Jesus did took care of our sins once and for all, long ago. Where they go wrong is they think we should therefore dodge the reminder. “Forgive me” reminds us God’s grace isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. But it also reminds us God forgives us—and that’s what’s awesome about it.
Yeah, sometimes we’re gonna forget God is gracious. When we commit a sin we feel especially bad about, we get this deranged mental picture of God as a shocked, disappointed, aggrieved parent. He’ll have to give us a paddling or something. In other words, we overlay our human ideas of human authority figures, upon God. Everybody does that sometimes. Even advanced Christians.
But stop that. That’s not God. Yeah, your sins aren’t nothing, but neither are they infinite. God is infinite. He has no trouble forgiving anything and everything we’ve ever done and ever will. We can’t overwhelm God’s ability to forgive. We’ll never commit a sin that’s the last straw, where God says, “Okay that’s unforgivable; you’re going to hell now.” We’ll never alienate God so bad he’ll never speak to us again—won’t love us anymore, won’t be immediately willing to run down the street to embrace us once we return.
From time to time you’ll encounter Christians who teach otherwise. That’s because we humans have a hard time forgiving. Students have asked me, “What about someone who was really bad?” and describe the worst they could imagine. And once or twice I very nearly said, “Well…” ’cause I’m not that gracious. But God is.
It’ll totally offend plenty of Christians’ sensibilities when people, who totally don’t deserve it, get into God’s kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Fact is, God could give a holy crap about our sensibilities. He wants everybody saved.