How can we open ourselves to the experience of a love that heals and that is infinitely greater than our guilt and our love?
We are stuck
|Geert was one of the most popular participants of the growth group.|
His great enthusiasm, friendliness and helpfulness created a warm atmosphere in the group. His sense of humor made each participant’s backpack lighter.
In fact, no one understood how a man of his caliber had ended up in such a painful situation: neither his ex-wife nor his children wanted any contact with him anymore. But, as is customary in a growth group, everyone respected the mystery and complexity of one’s past. A year after the growth group, disaster struck. Geert had a heart attack and died after a few days.
One of the participants called the supervisor. She was deeply shocked.
After the growth group she had remained friends with Geert and she went to visit him in the hospital. He had also entrusted her with his last wishes regarding his funeral, what should be done with his belongings, … To her dismay, his family refused to listen to this. They wouldn’t even have a funeral card made for him.
“I know I should forgive, but how could God allow such a thing?” she cried. ‘It seems like I didn’t learn anything in that growth group. I feel angry with God. What kind of God does not intervene here? It is degrading what his family is doing. Such a thing should be punished!’
As we set out in forgiveness, we discover more and more that we cannot pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair. We don’t have enough power for this ourselves, we need power that we get from outside ourselves. Some people call this force a Something: the Light, the Love, a positive Energy. Christians speak of a Someone: the God of Love. This God makes it possible for man to be lifted above his own ability. We can only prepare and wait for this experience of love, which makes everything flow again.
Perhaps the above paragraph raises eyebrows. Because that all sounds very nice, but maybe also a bit vague. What does Something or Someone who is literally beyond us have to do with our daily lives? How can we connect with Something or Someone? And more than that, what exactly are we to understand by ‘a God of Love’? If five people talk about God, there is a good chance that they have five different images of God. Which God are we talking about here?
The Merciful God and the Just God
Ons christelijk geloof zit vol tegenstellingen. God is helemaal mens geworden en toch helemaal God gebleven. God is Drie en Eén, een Drie-eenheid. Wie zijn leven wil behouden, zal het verliezen. We zijn in de wereld, maar niet van de wereld. We moeten opnieuw geboren worden, al zijn we oud. Als de graankorrel niet sterft, kan hij geen vrucht dragen. Deze tegenstellingen vinden we ook terug in de godsbeelden. God is de rechtvaardige rechter, een wreker van onrecht, én de barmhartige, vergevende God.
Telkens opnieuw stuit de aandachtige lezer op zaken waarvan hij of zij zegt: ‘Maar hoe kan dit nu? Die twee dingen spreken elkaar toch tegen?!’
One solution to this problem is to magnify one of the two poles of the opposites at the expense of the other. Usually this is the pole where a person or a culture feels most comfortable.
Thus for centuries people chose the image of the judgmental God. That worked well in hard times, where strict and fair leadership had to provide protection against the many dangers. With stories about a God-judge, the ecclesiastical power supported the secular power, and could therefore also share in that power itself. The Jesus who resolutely stood next to the least in society was hidden away. He was still there, as a cloak for the little person’s bleeding, but that didn’t change the way society was organized much.
Today we see the reverse happening. Modern man does listen to the forgiving Jesus, who goes out with prostitutes and tax collectors, but does not know how to keep up with texts about judgment or hell. We regard them as primitive and attempts are made to label them as inauthentic or time-bound.
We often don’t even realize how much cultural snobbery is behind this. We simply assume that our postmodern view of life is superior to the view of other cultures or times. We create a god in our image and likeness because we believe it to be the best God possible.
But more importantly, a one-sided emphasis on one of the two images of God – the judge or the merciful – never brings people liberation either.
In the first case, people are under the dictatorship of an all-seeing, judgmental God. The wrath of this holy and just God can be averted only with great difficulty.
|‘I like the way you talk about God,’ remarks Katrien ( ° ) as she sips her coffee. “But I could never set foot in a church.”|
‘Why not?’ Sabine wants to know.
Katrien immediately has her answer ready, as if she has often thought about this.
“It’s that awful statement,” she says. ‘I am not worthy that thou shouldst come to me, but speak and I shall be made well. Or something like that.’
“What do you hate about that?” asks Sabine in surprise. For her, it is one of the prayers she loves most.
‘Oh’, Katrien sighs, ‘That statement takes me right back to my high school long ago. I was in boarding school, and how that was stamped in: that we were sinful, but God saw everything we did wrong, even what we thought wrong, and that everyone would be judged one day. I lay awake all night, fearing that I would die and be condemned to hell. I only had peace of mind for the first ten minutes after confession. After that I had had my first unkind thought again, and there was that threatening judgment again.’
Many unhealthy images of God have arisen from this view of God:
the god-bookkeeper who meticulously keeps track of all our wrong thoughts and behavior, the inexorable judge, the finicky morality preacher, the perfectionist teacher, …
These images of God make forgiveness impossible. They make happiness impossible. They demand everything, and do not forgive us for failing.
When this god-bookkeeper or god-moral preacher or god-judge demand that we forgive, there is a discrepancy between their demand and their essence. The only forgiveness that can grow from such an image of God is a humiliating forgiveness, which makes the giver superior to the receiver.
We can also place a one-sided emphasis on the merciful God.
Here we get an image of God of a universal spirit of love that asks us above all to work for the oppressed and for human rights. And however true this image of God may be, with a one-sided exposure to it we also do not get what we need to go on the road to forgiveness. Also, from this vision grow images of God that do not have the power to change lives.
As straight-lined as the god-images can be from the God-judge, these god-images can become just as hazy and hazy: a positive energy, a source of love from which we can tap when we need it, a cosmic cuddly blanket or a good-natured grandfather, who everything is okay. Someone who nods kindly from his comfortable seat in heaven and says, “Ah, so long as they’re happy.”
In the protected West we usually feel quite comfortable with this image of God, until we are confronted with deep injustice. Then that God who thinks everything is fine cannot give us what we need to forgive.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf is a Croat who was a witness and victim of the violence in the Balkans. He doesn’t like the idea of a kind grandfather who wants the sun to shine for everyone. He argues that belief in a righteous judging God is the only thing that sustains people in such a situation and prevents them from responding to violence with violence.
Volf makes no bones about it: ‘If God were not angry about injustice and deceit, if he did not put an end to violence, he would not be worthy of worship.’ (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation , Abingdon, 1996, pp. 303-304, as quoted in Tim Keller, In all reasonableness – Christian faith for benevolent skeptics , Van Wijnen Publishers, Franeker, 2008, p . 90-91.)
We also recognize the desire for a righteous judgment in our own lives.
We can choose not to take revenge, but we cannot silence our hunger for justice.
|‘You look good. Did you sleep well?’ Isabel ( ° ) asks her teenage daughter Klare.|
She had been worried about her seventeen-year-old girl lately.
Since her best friend stole her boyfriend for one night just because she liked it, Klare had been through a very rough time. In one fell swoop she had lost her faith in friendship and love, or so it seemed. She could not sleep and was alternately full of anger and resentment or full of sadness and dejection.
But today she looks radiant. ‘I slept well’, Klare stretches.
Isabel looks at her questioningly.
‘I found something on the internet yesterday – and because of that I was able to let go of everything’, Klare smiles as she pours herself a cup of coffee.
‘Then what?’ Isabel wants to know.
“Karma,” Klare replies, a little shy. “That’s something from Hinduism or something, and that means that if someone does something really bad, it somehow comes back to that person. I really believe that and for me that’s enough.’
Isabel is silent for a moment, stunned.
“And does that make such a big difference to you?”
“Of course,” the girl says. “There must be justice, right?”
We can conclude that it does not work to resolve the contradiction between the two images of God by illuminating one facet at the expense of the other. Then we keep falling short of God in our way in forgiveness. But how can we deal with this contradiction?
The Story of Jesus: Where God’s Judgment and God’s Mercy Meet
The answer to this question is not a theory or dogma, it is a person.
In Jesus the insurmountable contradiction turns out to be no more than an apparent contradiction. In Him we see how it is always about the same thing: love. Divine love is just and merciful.
Jesus lived this love. Jesus died out of this love. In his story, the extremes of the apparent contradiction are connected.
Our questions may not be answered in it, but it does calm down.
On the cross, Jesus brought together the just and merciful God. ‘
He died for our sins,” “He bore our debts,” says the Bible, and all Christian denominations around the world agree. There are many ways in which Christians understand this. And probably a Christian will also discover new dimensions in these statements in the course of his or her life.
One thing is certain: in these statements both dimensions are united: the ‘light’ dimension of merciful love. There is no greater love than to lay down your life for someone. And the ‘dark’ dimension of guilt and the cry for justice. The balance must be restored. A debt cannot just disappear, it must be borne, a price must be paid.
|Over the past year we have been able to experience how high the price of forgiveness is. My brother had gotten himself into trouble. An accumulation of wrong choices had sent him into a downward spiral. When his shopping and drinking addiction also cost him his job, it went down steeply.|
All the while he ignored good advice and the offer to help him. What’s more, he was rude to his family. It got so bad that eventually no one wanted anything to do with him.
Then came the point where he was completely grounded. He was more dead than alive: very emaciated, depressed, unable to move a few meters, with alcohol as his only companion. He wanted euthanasia because of psychological suffering and asked his family to sign his application.
We decided to take one more chance. Not like the previous times, this time there were conditions attached to our help.
He had to be hospitalized and then sent to a rehab clinic. And afterwards we would become administrators for him, so that he wouldn’t fall into the same traps again.
For many months, just about all of our free time was spent talking with him, following up on his years-neglected paperwork, and cleaning up his apartment. What we found there defied all imagination. This is what a living space looks like when it has not been cared for for a year, or longer.
In conversations with my brother, it appeared that he had let himself go this way in response to disappointing experiences, injuries that people had inflicted on him and to which he had not found an answer.
Isn’t it always so? People pass on their injuries and continue to do so until someone is willing to pay the price. Injuries don’t just disappear.
When a child breaks an expensive vase, it is only repaired when a parent is willing to pay for a new vase. That costs money.
When someone cuts me off in the car, I can only remain courteous in traffic myself by swallowing my annoyance. And that takes an effort.
When a person is grounded, someone else has to get him or her on top. That takes time and effort. Forgiveness is much more than a vague feeling or a beautiful intention. It costs something: time, money, energy, the sacrifice of personal happiness. It hurts.
And it is also a very uncertain investment. You never know in advance whether the gift will be accepted.
But when the gift is accepted…then it is beautiful.
My brother now has a new apartment. He takes care of his mother. He is happy. We visit him regularly, and he visits us, and everyone enjoys it.
Could it be that the cross is the greatest act of forgiveness, at the ultimate cost?
How much debt has humanity already inflicted on itself? Wars, environmental pollution, genocides, abuse of power, broken promises, bigotry, racism, exploitation, murder,… the list is endless, the weight crushing.
Not only do we do great injustice to each other, but all these things that are not love, create an insurmountable abyss between man and his creator, who is love and goodness.
Some describe the crucifixion of Jesus as follows.
No one can close that gap. No one can afford that price. That guilt cannot simply disappear as if by magic – then human free will would be a farce and the just God a farce. So God Himself has restored the balance. In Jesus, God took all the blame. In Jesus, God died for our sins.
Others put a different emphasis. He continued to love until the very last moment. That love proved stronger than the reproach and hatred of his enemies, stronger than the pain of martyrdom, stronger than all the sins of the world. He reconnected us in everything and through everything with the love of the Father.
We can look at Jesus’ death on the cross from many other angles, just as one can turn a diamond, and each time new light falls on it.
|And what was the purpose of all this? What did Jesus come here to do? Of course, to teach us something; but as soon as you open the New Testament or other Christian writings, you find that it is constantly talking about something else: that He died and that He came to life again. Obviously, according to Christians, that is the main thing. According to them, the main thing He came to do on earth was to suffer and be put to death.|
Before I became a Christian, I always had the impression that the first thing a Christian should believe was a certain theory about the meaning of this death. (…)
What I later came to understand is that neither this nor any other theory is the Christian faith. The central Christian tenet is that through the death of Christ we have somehow come to terms with God and can make a new beginning. (…)
A man can accept what Christ has done, without knowing how it works; in fact, he certainly won’t know until he accepts it. From: CS Lewis, Pure Christianity, Kok Publishers, 2006 (sixth edition), pp. 61-64.
How we understand and accept Jesus’ sacrifice is a living experience that cannot be captured in an explanation or definition. We try that sometimes. We stammer a testimony of that immeasurable gift of God’s love that is at once just and merciful, and which is greater than all sin and all pain.
Because of the power of that love, the cross is not the end, but a beginning. After the cross there is the resurrection.
|‘To forgive?’ Veerle ( ° ) shrugs her shoulders. ‘What is that? I don’t know. I’ve struggled terribly with it. I’ve read theories about it. I’ve been in therapy for it. It all doesn’t help. I’m still broken inside.’|
Margot just nods. She knows what Veerle has been through. It was almost improbable that one could encounter so much in one lifetime. A fire. A separation. And then, a year ago, her son’s suicide. The boy was only 24.
‘There is only one thing that gives me peace’, Veerle continues. “When I go for a walk, I come across a crucifix. Such a classic crucifix, with a Jesus hanging there, nailed down, all pain, with that terrible crown of thorns. There is a bench in front of it, and I sit on it. And I’m just watching. I don’t know anything about theology, but I look at Jesus and that cross. Then I don’t feel so alone anymore. That’s where I relax. There I find strength to continue living.’
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection shines brightest against the pitch-black background of deep suffering.
But these big stories can inspire us in our small stories, in our ‘home, garden and kitchen forgiveness’. Forgiveness for our partner’s annoying meddling or indifference. The lack of support or appreciation from a superior. The pettiness of church members. The intolerance of young children. The rebellion of older children. The aloofness of adult children or parents. The criticism of a friend that feels like betrayal. A friend’s hurtful reaction when you just wanted to help with your criticism. The little crosses in our lives.
Can we catch our breath in the story of Jesus’ cross with our stories?
Can we find a love that is so much bigger than us? So big, that we couldn’t possibly earn them? So big that all our contradictions dissolve in it?
Christians have a name for this free love: grace.
How can we open ourselves to this grace?
How can we open ourselves to the experience of a love that heals and that is infinitely greater than our guilt and our love? How do we open ourselves to grace?
A first step is a purification of our images of God.
Just as it took four evangelists to tell the story of Jesus, people need each other to see more about who God is. As our ‘glasses’, our image of God, become clearer, grace can flow into us in a more multicolored way.
There are several ways to open ourselves more and more to this grace. We will briefly mention three, but there are many more.
One is to reconnect with the spirituality we had as children.
After all, every person has experienced God long before someone has spoken to him or her about God. As children we marveled at snow and cornflowers, tasted God in the wind as we walked through the fields, felt close to God as we made up stories and played in the warm sand. Or maybe we saw God at play with our friends or in the safe arms of our parents.
We didn’t have a language then to speak and even think about God, we may not even know Bible stories, but God doesn’t wait for a catechist, religion teacher, or priest to be close to people. It is worth asking where Love flowed for us as children, where we felt loved and full of life. These earliest experiences tell us something about our unique gateway to the grace of God. Bringing these childhood experiences back into our lives Jesus points out as the way to enter the Kingdom of God.
Praying with the Bible is another way.
The Lectio divina is an ancient spiritual practice among monks where God’s Word is carefully and penetratingly read. There are four steps. During the lectio , read the text carefully a few times. You don’t analyze or think about it, you just taste the text. In the meditation you consider the text. What are the keywords? How does this get to you? Then you open up to God. In this movement, the oratio, you bring your reading experiences and thoughts into prayer. You cannot organize or force the fourth movement, the contemplatio . It is the moment when insight comes, it is the moment of grace. Sporadically a fifth component is added: the actio: the moment when you start testing the new insights in practice.
Also in Ignatian prayer the meditative reading of the Bible is central, with special attention to the movements within you, in your soul. What attracts you? What do you find taste in? What are you rejecting? You are also asked to dare to dwell on what provokes resistance. Only then can our image of God be expanded, instead of creating a god in our image and likeness.
Finally, there is the prayer without words.
This is a very simple method, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The praying person makes it completely silent in himself: he or she sits still, does not talk and does not even think. In this way one makes oneself completely room for the presence of God.
Centuries ago it was already discovered that a mantra helps to achieve this silence. A mantra is a prayer word that is repeated (silently) to the rhythm of calm breathing. It serves as a snowblower, sweeping away all restless thoughts like swirling snowflakes. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” For those who regularly practice meditation, this becomes an experience.
|STEP 11 IN A NUTSHELL One- sided images of God only take us further from the God of love and forgiveness. In the story of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection, the just God and the merciful God come together. We can open ourselves more to God’s grace through to live prayerfully: from the spirituality of our childhood, by praying with the Bible, by silent prayer or meditation.|
Good to know
- This twelve-part series on Monbourquette’s path to forgiveness is a project of the Interdiocesan Service for Family Pastoral (IDGP).
- ° : All names in the testimonials are fictitious, the stories are not.
- IDGP made grateful use of the work of artist Elsker.
Image : © Elsker