St. Theophan the Recluse has a wonderful commentary on Psalm 118 recently (2014) revised and published by St. John of Kronstadt Press. I’m being both inspired and stretched by it. I got to thinking about what the Church means when it talks about forgiveness by some of St. Theophan’s comments on verse 31 of Psalm 118.
I have cleaved to Your testimonies, O Lord; put me not to shame.
St. Theophan’s commentary touches on the experience of shame in answering the question: “What proves that someone’s sins are forgiven?”
There are really two ends to the one pole or two sides to this one coin of forgiveness. The one end is God’s. The other end is our own, our own acceptance and experience of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness from God’s side has never been the problem for Orthodox Christians. We have no theology of retributive justice or substitutionary atonement. God doesn’t need us (or Jesus) to sacrifice or die or do anything in order for God to love and forgive us. God is not bound. God doesn’t need anything to love and forgive any sinner. Sacrifice is never about what God needs, it’s about what we need. As the Psalmist David says,
“Sacrifice and offering You (God) do not desire, or I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
For many forms of western Christianity, unfortunately, the whole purpose of Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross is reduced to buying off, or satisfying, or somehow appeasing God the Father so that He can forgive mankind. And this juridical or legal sense of forgiveness as forgiving a debt or pardoning a crime has become the sole way the word forgiveness is understood in English.
But when you look at how the Orthodox Church Fathers use the word forgive, it often implies a process, an experience that grows. Certainly, legal imagery is also used. But in Orthodox theology, imagery is not mistaken for what is, for “how it really happens.” I often warn people who like to talk about what God does or doesn’t, can or can’t do: “Beware lest you turn a metaphor into the mechanism.” The Orthodox way is open to many metaphors because the Orthodox have always been relatively comfortable with mystery. The eastern Church rejected the scholastic impulse of the Middle Ages to define just about everything. We Orthodox are OK saying that forgiveness is a mystery. We don’t need to define forgiveness, although we may use many metaphors, even legal ones, to help us know and experience forgiveness. But in the end, forgiveness is one of the many mysteries of our relationship with God.
We are assured that God loves human beings and is forgiving, but how that really works on God’s end, this is shrouded in the mystery of who God is. However, the other end of the pole, or other side of the coin, is our experience or acceptance of God’s forgiveness. And this experience of forgiveness the Church often speaks of as forgiveness itself. That is, as we read in several lives of saints, when on the saint’s death bed, the fellow monastics ask, “Are you forgiven of your sins?” they are not questioning God’s ability to forgive the dying monk. What they are questioning is the monk’s experience of that forgiveness. Or as St. Theophan puts it: has the dying person heard “not from the outside, but from within…the attestation uttered from above in the conscience that his sins have been forgiven?” So often when the Church Fathers speak of forgiveness, or being forgiven, they are not speaking of God’s end of the pole, but of our own: Have you experienced God’s forgiveness?
To tell you the truth, this matter of the two poles of forgiveness has always needled me somewhat. I came to faith in Christ through the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. The “acceptance of Christ” and the forgiveness of my sins changed me. It brought me from darkness to light and gave me a theology with which I could consciously engage my relationship with God—a relationship that existed before this point, but that I had no tools, no vocabulary, no tradition in which to place it and begin to consciously engage it. And in that largely Evangelical theological framework, forgiveness was a gift of God purchased by the death of Jesus that I received simply by believing it was mine, by accepting it. And in that context, believing and accepting was reduced to simply assenting to the theological assertion as to fact. Just as an apple falls to the ground because I drop it, so God forgives me because I accept it.
However, the actual experience of accepting God’s forgiveness is much more difficult and nuanced than just dropping an apple. This is why every single evangelism program I was ever involved with—and I was involved with quite a few—always followed the “acceptance of Christ” with the “assurance of salvation.” Sometimes people who accepted Christ felt forgiven right away, but that always wore off pretty quickly (in my experience). To keep these new Christians from despair, they had to be taught Bible verses that assured them of God’s promise to forgive. But again, when we said forgive, we understood it as a business or financial or legal transaction that was done, sealed and over. But why then did we have to try so hard to convince ourselves? We tried so hard to convince ourselves because the actual experience of forgiveness is not that of a legal transaction.
The experience of forgiveness is much more organic, more relational. Forgiveness is actually something that grows. St. Theophan says that it is necessary to develop the hope that comes from working on our salvation (i.e. cooperating with God’s Grace through repentance and spiritual disciplines). And it is this hope that begins to release us from shame and is the evidence of growing or maturing forgiveness. “Without it,” St. Theophan says, “there can be no beginning of the work of salvation; and even more so, no continuation. But there it was in conception; here it is mature.” For St. Theophan, it seems, forgiveness and the accompanying release from shame is something that is conceived in us and grows to maturity.
And isn’t this how we actually experience forgiveness in all of our personal relationships? If I lose my temper and yell at my daughter, she may forgive me; but it will take a long time for me to fully be free of that shame. I have made many mistakes raising my daughters; and my daughters, like the true saints they seem to me to be, have largely forgiven me. But some of those “forgivenesses” are still in the womb and others are fully mature. About the mature “forgivenesses,” we can now talk and even laugh without me experiencing even a hint of shame. Other “forgivenesses” are still in process. And that’s OK. To be in process is to be on the way; and that is what the Christian life is: The Way. We have eternity to work it out, so long as we are working at working it out.
And this experience of forgiveness as a process works both ways. It’s a process for the forgiven just as for the forgiver. My father, I am convinced, did his best to love and raise me; but because of the circumstances of our life, was unable to give me what I needed. So I had some real serious anger issues related to my father. However, shortly after accepting Christ as a fourteen year old, I came across the Sermon on the Mount and the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I assure you, that verse is not in any list of assurance verses I have memorized. But even a teenage Jesus Person reading the Lord’s Prayer can figure out that if he wants to be forgiven by God, he has to forgive others. And so at fourteen, I began to forgive my father. It was a process that took decades. It was a process that didn’t even really begin with forgiveness or wanting to forgive. It began with wanting to want to forgive.
But as I grew and came to know myself, others and God better, I found that I was returning perennially to my father issues and having, again and again, to forgive. It wasn’t until my forties that I realized that I was free, that forgiveness had matured and I was completely free of bitterness or anger toward my father. I felt nothing by pity for the suffering my father had experienced and thankfulness for all that God had worked in my life through the less than perfect aspects of my childhood. Forgiveness is a process. It is conceived and matures, if we let it, if we keep working on it.
And the process works both ways. Now God is outside of time, but we are not. God does not need time or process, but we do. We conceive the forgiveness of God in our conscience or in our heart when we first turn to Him in repentance. But this forgiveness must mature in us. It matures through continued repentance and through the hope that repentance creates in our hearts. And this hope, according to St. Theophan, is what delivers us from shame. St. Theophan quotes St. Hilary’s commentary on this verse:
“He who cleaves to God’s testimonies gets the forgiveness of past sins. In the Lord’s word it is said: ‘For behold I have blotted out as a cloud your transgressions and your sin as darkness’ (Isa. 44:22). God can remove from us everything that can disgrace us and cover us with shame, if we can say honestly, ‘I have cleaved to Your testimonies.’”
And then St. Theophan comments, “Yet, the one who speaks so still lives here, still is on the road, still is sailing and not yet in port.” God forgives and removes all shame, but we experience this as a journey, as a road we travel, as a course we sail.
This connection of the experience of shame and the growing experience of forgiveness that St. Theophan writes of reminds me of some of the spiritual counsels of Elder Sophrony of Essex. In counselling us about what we should focus on in confession, Elder Sophrony advises that we confess most of all what we are ashamed of. Shame seems to be one of the most important indicators of areas in our life where the experience of God’s forgiveness needs to grow.
But shame is tough. There are still in myself pockets of shame that are very difficult to confess. These are things that I may have confessed in a general way or partially confessed, or things that I have fully confessed but am still being forgiven for. That is, I’m still growing in my ability to repent and accept God’s forgiveness. And so, I have to keep confessing the same thing over and over again, perhaps for decades, perhaps for the rest of my life. But that’s OK. I’m on the road. I’m on the Way.