The great opposing forces in our universe are not good and evil. Not moral conformity and moral failure. Not peace and war. Not belief and disbelief. According to a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible, they are forgiveness and accusation.
Through his life and teaching Jesus revealed a God who is unconditionally forgiving. The God represented and embodied by Jesus is not angry or conflicted or two-faced or withholding like so many religious visions of deity. He is a loving Father (or Mother – the Bible uses this metaphor too!). Jesus called for moral reform and repentance, but never under the pretense of an angry God out for revenge. His primary rhetorical targets were powerful accusers and abusers, not their victims. In fact, he embraced and forgave “sinners” freely while denouncing those who bullied and condemned them in the name of religion. God’s character, God’s posture, according to Jesus, is endlessly forgiving and compassionate toward the bungled and the botched.
Meanwhile, “the satan” is not some naughty imp who wants to trick you into committing a sin so you’ll get bounced out of heaven on a technicality. “The accuser” is not a personal devil or some fallen angel, it’s the sinister spirit that sours the human heart and makes us unwilling to love or forgive. On an intimate scale that looks like sin, abuse, and betrayal. In the big picture it means oppression, war, and disaster. It’s the urge to accuse and condemn others, to perpetuate cycles of retribution and violence. It overlooks its own guilt while using the guilt of another as grounds for victimization and attack. It’s the opposite of mercy and forgiveness.
You Got Condemnation In My Forgiveness!
These are both ideas I have presented before on the blog, but I want to take a moment to hold them side-by-side and allow them to clarify and amplify one another. Throughout its history, the religion called Christianity has erred grievously by swirling forgiveness (the divine) and accusation (the satanic) together and calling the resulting mess “God.” This Frankenstein’s monster really wants to love you, and may one day forgive you, but his strong sense of accusation and justice means that he can’t even bear to look at you until his wrath has been satisfied. This is a bad news god, a projection of human accusation and victimization on a cosmic scale.
Believers in this god can easily slip down one of two slopes. They can be crushed by the anxiety and confusion of serving a god who promises but withholds good things, or they can become agents of accusation themselves. Instead of embodying the forgiving Father of Jesus, we act as little satans, holding our neighbors against the wall in the name of holiness and religion. Jesus warned his followers in no uncertain terms about withholding forgiveness. Trusting in Jesus doesn’t mean believing that he can help you navigate divine wrath and accusation. It means trusting him that God’s forgiveness is real and free.
“But We Have To Take Sin Seriously!”
The main objection of traditional Christianity to an ultra-forgiving portrait of God is that it fails to “take sin seriously,” that it puts people in danger because it doesn’t properly motivate them to repent. Clinging to a specious and harmful concept of god simply to make a point or to elicit a desired response from “sinners” is problematic, to say the least, and betrays a host of sketchy assumptions. It assumes a Frankenstein god who is made of both wrath and blessing, it assumes that sinners will only change if they are threatened by this god (or its followers), and it assumes that the true consequences of sin are administered punitively by that god. But is this what Jesus taught?
Jesus spoke often and in strong terms about the dangers of sin. He warned of unchecked aggression and victimization, of exploitation and retribution, of religiously justified condemnation and warmongering. These are human-to-human sins with catastrophic temporal consequences. And when Jesus punctuates his teachings with images of Gehenna, he is not suddenly introducing the threat of divine retribution in the afterlife, he is invoking the Hebrew byword of failure and self-destruction. Gehenna is the trash heap of war and genocide, of human accusation run amok. Call it judgment, call it the inevitable wages of sin, but it is not the capricious act of a vengeful god whose love looks suspiciously like hate. “The satan” is our enemy, not God. We are our own worst enemy, not God.
WE CAN TAKE SIN AND ITS CONSEQUENCES VERY SERIOUSLY WITHOUT SLANDERING THE CHARACTER OF GOD.
Forgiveness in this sense doesn’t mean looking the other way and ignoring human failure or its devastating affects. It doesn’t overlook or minimize the crushing ramifications of sin. To say that God is forgiving is to say that His disposition toward humanity is not grudge holding, accusation, and punishment, but liberation, reconciliation, and rescue. When we enter into the deathly spiral of condemnation and violent “justice” in the name of divinity, we have actually chosen the path of our enemy. Forgiveness is the way to be like God.