For most of us, forgiveness implies a denial of responsibility. Literally, I can spend my life as a self-loving, sinning jerk (and I do), yet once I call upon the grace of God, I am forgiven. All those times that I took advantage, manipulated, overspent and overate are “cast as far as the east is from the west” in the “wideness of God’s mercy”. It is as if all that sinning never happened. Many fine theologians tell me my slate has been wiped clean. I can start a fresh, new life.
Along the same line, I’ve increasingly become interested when others invoke the Divine. Consider when someone applies for a job. No one ever invokes God when they lie on their resume. No one ever asks for Jesus’ blessing when they stretch the truth at a job interview. Yet, they’re quick to pretend the resignation of a saint while they wait to hear back: they say rather stoically, “Lord, its in your hands!” And without any irony, they ask for your prayers — perhaps the final vestige of a long-forgotten guilty conscience.
Is this grace? Does grace only operate in buzzer-beating shots and in desperate final moments? Is grace so impartial? Does grace allow us not to give a damn about ethics, morals and how we live our lives? If it is “all under the blood” then does that mean that I don’t have to bleed every once in a while? Does grace mean I get to do whatever I want?
I believe this. I want to believe this. But, it seems that this kind of grace means ignoring responsibility. What about all those I’ve wronged inadvertently or hurt intentionally? Do I not have to ask their forgiveness, too? How can I be reconciled to God without seeking reconciliation with those around me? How can I ask God to bless a life built on the suffering of others? Or ask God to bless a life built on a lie? How blank can a slate be when fresh blood drips from its teeth?
The older understanding of grace is quite different. Back then (after contrition, confession and priestly absolution) grace required satisfaction. It required penance. It required at least a mediocre attempt at amending our life. For me, the most effective penance has been the creative assignments of my confessor: go apologize; don’t defend yourself; give a gift secretly to someone you despise; change the subject when gossip starts; and publicly praise someone you don’t like in their presence, among others. But, no matter what it was, grace cost me something.
Grace cost me a little pride and a little “healthy self-image.” In order to be reconciled to God, I had to seek out reconciliation with those who I’ve hurt and maimed with my spiteful little mouth. Just because my sin has been cast “as far as the east is from the west” does not mean that it hasn’t left an indelible mark on my life and, sadly, on the lives of those around me. I couldn’t just pretend it never happened. Grace never lets us pretend.
This seems to be the job of the Church: proclaim the unlimited grace of God that demands responsibility. After all, everyone else in this culture tells me that I’m fearful of being “powerful beyond measure.” Yet, I can’t control myself. Our pop-spiritual, pseudo-psychological gurus tell us to focus on developing a “positive self-image”. Yet, the Gospel tells me that I need to die. Our world is radical irresponsibility of non-apology apologies, where billionaires are bailed-out and profitable ends justify any means of ruin for others. We need — I need! — responsible grace.
(Which, by the way, is why I am thoroughly opposed to the proposed “communion without baptism” resolution going before General Convention. While it has good intentions, “communion without baptism” is offering grace without responsibility — specifically, the responsibility of baptism. It cheapens grace. It is cheap grace. We should decide very soon that the job of the Church is to make Saints, not make more Episcopalians.)
I struggle with forgiving others. I can’t tell how much of my forgiving is Godly, and how much is simply placating the voracious appetites of others. How much of it is me wanting to get out of the way? How much is it the fact that I don’t want to make waves? How much is it that I want other people to feel good? Is it my place to hold someone accountable? How much of forgiveness is enabling? Do I have the responsibility to ask for satisfaction? Can I forgive, but ask for penance before restoring someone to fellowship? Do I dare protect myself?
I can never tell.
Yet, I know the crushing weight of grace that bears my freed soul up to the starry sky. It is there, close to the heart that spills sacred blood for a sacred feast, that I wish to live. There, I wish to deeply rest at peace for a thousand thousand years till the stars fall from the sky when the New Jerusalem returns like a bride adorned on her wedding day. And, when all is enfolded in love, shall I withhold my forgiveness? Shall I demand responsibility when all is perfected in the scorching heat of unfiltered Divine presence?
I can never tell. I can never tell. Kyrie Eleison.