I am currently attending college in one of those Bible belt cities with a church on every other street corner. When I first arrived three and a half years ago, I decided it would be fun to spend a semester visiting as many of those churches as I could. I had attended the same church for 19 years, and I figured it would do me good to see all the different ways people worshiped God. I visited a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, an Antioch church, and a handful of nondenominational churches with words like “community” and “fellowship” in their names, just to name a few. It was an amazing experience. Sure, some of the practices I observed didn’t quite resonate with me, but there were a lot of things that I’d never seen before that I wished had been implemented in my own home church.
One of these practices was done while taking communion. Like at my home church, there was some time allotted for confession before God, but, unlike my church, after a minute or so of this confession, the pastor would say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” I’ve since learned that this is actually fairly common practice, but it was new to me and it stuck out. I remember having a conversation with a woman who said the pastor always said this phrase too soon – she could never finish confessing her sins before the pastor said she was forgiven. She voiced this complaint jokingly, with a sort of pious, mock frustration; but I think it does reflect an issue many of us have.
We try to make God’s forgiveness too hard and too incomplete.
Yes, our sin is serious and, yes, without Christ’s sacrifice it would totally separate us from God. It is very hard to believe that God would forgive us so easily. Here we are, bearers of his image, running around his creation and acting like idiots. It just sounds too easy that we could come to him and say “I’m sorry” and have our names cleared so easily. But when the Bible tells me my sins have been taken from me as far as the east is from the west, I’m inclined to believe it.
There’s a great interview with Bono where he talks about how hard it is to understand grace. It’s just a foreign concept. Every other religion centers around the idea of karma and reaping what you sow. Even in culture today, we receive punishments or rewards that are proportionate to our actions. But grace takes all of that and turns it on our head. We get spared from all of the bad stuff we deserve and are instead given all kinds of wonderful things that we have no business receiving.
No wonder we try to make forgiveness so hard. No wonder we feel a little frustrated when we’re trying to feel sufficiently penitent and confess all of our sins while God is sitting at our shoulder, interrupting us with a quiet yet strong “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Nothing in the world works quite like the grace of God.