grace and repentance...

Question: is forgiveness and our encounter with God's grace conditional upon
repentance? I was asked this question after worship and I've been mulling it over and again for the past 24 hours. (And, truth be told, for the past 35 years!)  There was a time when I would have said, "Yes, without a doubt. We are to forgive one another as God has forgiven us." And, in that mode, I would have emphasized examples from the Scriptures concerning God withholding forgiveness from those who willfully harm one another in sin. These would be texts of judgment. I might have also focused very narrowly on passages that celebrate human repentance as the necessary requisite for salvation.

But my experience of grace - and my cautious study of scripture - suggests that repentance (a change of direction and behavior) is most likely a consequence of grace rather than a condition. God's ways are not our ways; so while theology is a human act of faith searching for understanding, I think it essential to confess that we human beings LOVE to believe we can grasp the essence of the holy. We insist that we can understand things that are mysterious and beyond our pay grade. 

Last night, while reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, she described how both doctors and friends spoke of the autoimmune disease causing deterioration of her vision. In a word, science currently does not fully understand autoimmune diseases. Human beings may one day comprehend why the body seems to turn against itself - there are some evolutionary theories emerging that might be helpful - but the current facts are only descriptive rather than prescriptive. Still, our quest for understanding and control causes people to say thing like: well, what did you DO to cause this problem? Gallagher writes:

Each disease has its own trigger, its own genetic history, and possibly its own code...despite this complexity, popular culture responds to mysterious illnesses as if the victim's personality had caused it. Diseases that have no discernible causes are the most obvious choices. Susan Sontag wrote about this twenty years ago in her revelatory book Illness as Metaphor, when there was an actual phrase: the cancer personality... "Sensitive people" - poets, artists - got TB. Once the bacillus that causes TB was found, that link faded. Now the new diseases vulnerable to the personality cause are autoimmune. We want to have answers, we want to explain how things happen, we want cause and effect... and we have so little tolerance for not knowing, for reaching the limits of reason, that we make up stories that will explain, satisfy and put to bed. 

Gallagher goes on to describe a doctor's questions after she told him that an autoimmune disorder had been discovered. "He gave it some thought, asked me a few more questions, and then said, 'Your grandmother committed suicide, didn't she? We could think of autoimmune as a form of suicide.'"

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to get off the phone. He wanted an explanation that would... would what? ... (he) was determined to hold fast against the knowledge that such a place existed outside of case and effect. It must be because my grandmother committed suicide. He must have done something terribly wrong. It must be something he ate or drank or did. Or else? I finally understood: or else it could happen to them. 

I believe a great deal of both conservative and liberal theology concerning grace and forgiveness falls into the arrogant assumption that we can know God's ways. We have clues, of course. We see both the order and the wildness of nature. So we have some clues. We experienced human love as well as terror. But for over one thousand years we have acted as if our ability to think and reason was the same thing as being created in the image of God. Reason is part of the divine imagination, but not the whole story and to think otherwise is dangerous hubris. The prophet Isaiah got it right when he sang:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 
For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

So, too, the Psalmist in her mystical reflection on encountering God's embrace in Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvelous for me. 
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
   from this time on and for evermore.

Grace, I believe, is eternal and never saved simply for those who might warrant or earn it. Grace may be absent, of course. St. Paul calls the absence of grace wrath. It is the haunting and agonizing experience of living into the consequences of our sin and arrogance.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.

 I've seen people act like animals. I've known this fall in my own heart and life. It is life separated from grace. Repentance is the goal as grace is withheld to encourage our return to the loving embrace of the Lord. But let's be clear, wrath is never eternal. Grace is - in this life and the next. Like Rob Bell (and Karl Barth) make clear:  LOVE WINS. Period. So we don't have to understand this because we can not: such love is of the Lord and not of our way and making.

I sense that we are born from within the love of God and that we return into it when this realm is over (for us.) Grace can evoke and encourage human repentance, but I can't see how it is ever conditional. Your thoughts?

credits

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