An Irresistable Invitation

Elul stirs mixed feelings for me.  The last month before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days is a time for reflection and preparation.  It’s a time when Jews take stock of their actions over the past year and decide what course corrections they need to turn back to God to live more just, loving and kind lives in the year ahead.  It is a magnificent invitation.  Whereas Yom Kippur sees “the closing of the gates,” during Elul, the gates are wide open for all who take the necessary steps to walk through them.  With such a magnanimous and loving invitation, why do we pause at the threshold or procrastinate taking those steps?

Several traditions ponder this human reticence.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasruddin searching for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under the lamp post and his neighbors come to help him.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house.  “Why are you looking outside?” asks the neighbor.  “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

A friend who is in recovery from addiction described approaching the Fourth Step—searching and fearless moral inventory—in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in much the same way.  When he got to the Fourth Step, he found his Twelve Step guide to be woefully lacking in helpful information for completing the step.  He bought a second guide and worked diligently through the first three steps but again found insufficient direction on the Fourth Step.  He bought a third guide and became increasingly frustrated that the book was short on answers.  At that point, he came to see that, like Nasruddin, the answers he needed could never come from an external
light but could only come from looking within.

Several Christian traditions observe preparatory and penitential seasons, namely Advent preceding Christmas and more especially Lent preceding Easter, during which introspection and confession are encouraged.  Although Catholics receive more exposure to this practice than other Christians, as many as 75 percent of US
Catholics
report they never attend confession, or do so less than once a year.

Several traditions teach the only thing that can possibly stand in the way of God’s love for us is ourselves.  When we make ourselves vulnerable in the act of honest introspection, we are rewarded with intimacy with God and with self.  Moreover, when we expose ourselves to God’s power, he can help us make the very changes we seek.

Join the conversation.  In the face of an irresistible invitation, why do we resist taking an
honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Conditions for Forgiveness

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
met.

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
forgiveness?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.