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.

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Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

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