The Jewish tradition has three words for sin: Chet translates literally to missing the mark. Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion. We all miss the mark or fall short of our good intentions. We each have free will, and at times, following our desires leads to rebelling against God’s will. What does God do when that happens? Different traditions answer that question differently.
Jewish theology describes God’s nature in terms of polar opposites that are simultaneously true. God cares about justice and holds individuals and groups of people responsible for their actions. God is also merciful to sinners who turn to him and change their ways. Jews believe God is merciful and forgives when they take certain steps that include:
- Tzedakah: helping those in need for the sake of fairness
- Teshuvah: confessing, making amends to and getting forgiveness from those harmed, and, above all, stopping the wrongdoing
- T’fila: prayer
The Jewish prayers of confession, called the vidui, include extending forgiveness to those who have harmed us. The Jewish tradition encourages forgiveness but does not require it if the offender has not completed teshuvah.
Islam shares some similarities with Jewish teaching in the steps for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness:
- Confessing the offense to those harmed and to God
- Making amends to and asking forgiveness from those harmed
- Tauba: feeling remorse and committing to stop wrongdoing
- Istighfar: asking God for forgiveness
Whereas Jewish forgiveness rests on evidence—e.g. securing the victim’s forgiveness rather than asking, stopping wrongdoing rather than intending to stop—in Islam, God’s forgiveness rests on sincerity. Forgiving others, even enemies, is a virtue the prophet Muhammad taught by his words and his living example. While God loves and rewards extending forgiveness to others, it is not a requirement if all the other conditions are
The Christian tradition departs rather significantly from both these traditions with only one condition for receiving God’s forgiveness:
- Forgiving the offenses of others, whether they deserve it or not
New Testament scripture repeatedly makes clear that God extends forgiveness under no other terms. The Christian tradition does include a practice of confession of sins to God, but since Christians believe Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time, Christians are drawn to confession to reconcile their relationship with God, to grow closer to him, to bring him joy and to receive his help to change rather than for forgiveness alone.
Another significant difference between Christian beliefs and beliefs shared by the
Jewish and Muslim traditions concerns the victim’s exclusive power to forgive. In the latter two, God only forgives offenses against God, and offenses against man must be amended and forgiven among men as a condition for God’s forgiveness. Although the Christian tradition does not require making amends and seeking forgiveness for harm done, the process of Christian reconciliation with God does require forgiving others, so it has a reconciling effect among men nonetheless.
Join the conversation. What do you think about these different conditions for God’s
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.