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God Squad: God erases sins we can only forgive

Lots of comments on my answer to the question, “Is there an unforgivable sin?” Here is a good one from E:

Q You said murder is an unforgivable sin because the dead person cannot forgive you. It doesn’t matter if people can forgive us, but only if God forgives us. We have a gracious God who forgives us over and over for all the many sins we commit against our neighbors every day. All we need to do is go to him in true repentance and he will forgive us. Christians believe that the only sin that is unforgivable is rejecting the free gift of grace won for us by Jesus’ death on the cross. Look at the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Just before he died, he asked Jesus to remember him and Jesus promised, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Go back to the Old Testament. Remember how the Israelites continually sinned against God by turning to idols. Then God would send some trouble or disaster and his people would repent and turn back to God and he forgave them over and over. Even King David, who committed murder against Uriah the Hittite, was forgiven by God when David confessed his sin. In Psalm 51:4 David confesses: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” And he continues in verse 17: “ . . . a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”

A I agree that God has the power to forgive any sin, including murder. My question and my focus is on us, not God, and murder presents a unique spiritual challenge for human forgiveness because we are not God. We are made in the image of God but that only means that there is a piece of divinity in us all. It does not mean that we can either replicate or represent God’s complete perfection here on earth. For Christians, Jesus is perfect, but there is still an immense spiritual gap between Jesus and every Christian. If we have to be perfect to forgive murder, none of us can forgive murder. I know the stories of Christians who have forgiven the murderers of their loved ones. A part of me admires them but the largest part of me cannot comprehend them.

Let me explain my problem with forgiveness by explaining how I teach about sin, repentance and forgiveness to children. I start by asking their help in pounding nails into a piece of lumber. Then I explain that the nails are like all the hurtful things we do to other people. The nails are our sins. Then I use the claw part of the hammer to pull all the nails out of the wood. I tell the children that pulling out the nails is like saying you are sorry to the person you hurt. I tell them that this pulling out nails is called repentance. But then I ask them to look at all the nail holes that remain in the wood. I ask them how we can get rid of the holes and they always say, “There’s no way, Rabbi Gellman, to get rid of the holes in the wood.” I agree with them, and I explain to them that the holes are the scars we leave behind when we sin against other people and hurt them, and that is why we have to be so careful not to hurt people. They are quiet then, but I am not finished with my spiritual demonstration. I show them a new piece of wood with no nail holes in it. I tell them that this is what the wood looks like when God gets through with it. This is what happens when God forgives our sins. God makes the holes go away. Usually at least one child asks me, “How does God do that? How does God get rid of the holes?” I say to that child, “I don’t know. I just know that God can do it.”

That is the difference between God and us. Somehow, someway God can heal the holes in the world caused by our sins. As for us, we must try to find a way to live among the nail holes and pray that in God’s grace — or in Hebrew it is called hesed — God will fill in the holes we leave behind. God can forgive and forget but we can only forgive.

I know that this may be a difference between us, but I pray for the day when our souls are released by death into a world to come where there are no holes at all.

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