Updated: Apr 24, 2020
“Say you're sorry.”
I'm sure you've either heard or said that oft-repeated phrase in childhood. Parents work hard to teach children to feel sorry for a wrongdoing, and to accept an apology in turn. A toy taken. Hair pulled. Rude words. Even as a child we soon learn that someone telling us they are sorry doesn't always make it right. It still hurts. It's still broken.
As an adult, that hard knowledge only grows. Can “I'm sorry” erase cruel words that cut as deep as physical wounds? How does an apology fix something unfixable? When we're the ones at fault, how do we ease the guilt that haunts us?
Is repentance ever enough?
My older kids and I just wrapped up watching the series Once Upon a Time. (Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen it!) The most intriguing characters on the show are the Villains, in particular, Regina, the Evil Queen. All she wants is happiness, but she chases all the wrong things in her quest to capture it. Eventually, the love of her friends and family sets her feet back on the right path, even though she's often tempted to stray. Still, despite her new direction in life, her past keeps returning to haunt her, and not all her wrongs can be made right. It's hard to watch her desperately trying to convince everyone she's changed when they're holding her sins up before her nose.
The other main Villain is Rumpelstiltskin. Known as “The Dark One”, he has lived many lifetimes preying on others. Several seasons in, he finally learns that power is empty next to the love he feels for a certain woman. He desires to cast his evil aside, an evil embodied physically in something called the Dark One Dagger. We watch him spend an entire season trying to get rid of this Dagger, all while desperately trying to be “good enough” to deserve to be with the one he loves.
Now, these are just stories, of course, but they speak to a real need that so many of us feel. We wish to be forgiven, and our troubled history erased—never to haunt us again.
The simple steps of forgiveness
When the final episode of Once was finished, I used the opportunity to attempt a meaningful conversation with my pre-teen and teen son.
“It was hard watching Rumple try so hard to get rid of that Dagger, and nothing working, right?”
“What do we need to get rid of our sins?”
“Belief.” (Teens are never particularly wordy in serious conversations, are they?)
“Belief in what?”
“Yes, and that His Son, Jesus, died on the cross for our sins.”
And it's just that simple! One slightly stilted conversation is enough to encapsulate the hope offered to each and every one of us. Repent, Believe, and Ask.
It's almost too simple for many people's tastes. If I could have jumped through the screen and offered that hope to Rumple, he would have laughed at me. He believes he needs to earn his forgiveness.
Don't believe me that forgiveness is this simple? Read Acts 2:37-38.
“. . . they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the disciples, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (NASB)
So, seriously, that's it? And why do we need to do this in the name of Jesus? We didn't do anything wrong to him, did we?
Why do we need the name of Jesus?
The Pharisees wondered this very thing, as they watched Jesus forgive the paralytic in Matthew 9:1-8. (I have a short story on the paralytic in my book, 'As the Stars!) They were scandalized that Jesus dared to assert that sort of authority, it was blasphemy! Not only that, Jesus forgave a stranger as if he had hurt him personally. Yet, Jesus insisted that he had a perfect right to forgive this man. Just as he has the right to do it for each and every one of us.
Romans 3 starts by showing that we are one giant mess. Not a single one of us can say that we've done no wrong. Let's take a look at Romans 3:20 and following:
“It's clear enough, isn't it, that we're sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God's revelation doesn't put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else's sin.
“But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we've compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity, he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did by the means of Jesus Christ.
“God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public—to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it's now—this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.” (The Message)
When being forgiven becomes a new way of life
Sometimes, having been born and raised in a Christian household, I lose sight of how incredibly, inexplicably, incredible this is. Even if you hurt someone else, and they can't bring themselves to forgive you for the pain you caused, God can and will forgive you. You can find freedom from that awful burden that's been weighing you down! It seems way too easy for us, like there must be more.
We're quick to take back our guilt. "I'm forgiven, but . . . "
Surely, we reason, once we accept Jesus and are granted forgiveness, we have to do something to keep it. Now we must balance the scales of our evil deeds with good ones, right? It's more like a second chance than an outright wiping out of our sins, right?
Keep reading into the next chapter of Romans:
“Now that we are set right with God by means of this sacrificial death, the consummate blood sacrifice, there is no longer a question of being at odds with God in any way. If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life! Now that we have actually received this amazing friendship with God, we are no longer content to simply say it in plodding prose. We sing and shout our praises to God through Jesus, the Messiah!” (The Message)
Our lives change as a result of our amazing friendship with God, not because we need to earn His friendship, but because our lives have shifted on their axis, and this world of sin is no longer our hometown. Keep reading into Chapter 6!
“So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!”
“Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That is what Jesus did. That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives.” (The Message)
Living in the ways of God is a new way of true life, not a penance. We do it because we want to live as citizens of heaven, not because we have to earn our citizenship. That was a free gift to us! We do our best to keep from sinning because God's ways are a part of who we are now. Of course, we make a heap of mistakes, but we keep on striving like children to make our heavenly Father proud of us, and to show His love to the world as His ambassadors, to be His light to a dark world.
Do you still struggle with understanding the Cross? You're not alone! Even though I was baptized long ago, and go to church, and study the Bible at home, with every season of life I find new questions to ask. I wrote a few posts pondering hard questions about the Cross, questions you might have too. I hope you'll be blessed by them.
Questions, comments? Please feel free to join in the conversation below! Or contact me for a private chat!