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Daniel 9: Confession and Repentance

Daniel 9: Confession and Repentance

The Adult Bible Studies Sunday School curriculum was on the subject of confession and repentance with the primary passage being Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9. This is an interesting and powerful prayer to read and deserves more attention than it gets. They secondarily referred to Psalm 51, which is also an important prayer of confession, and is much better known that Daniel 9. (I wrote a meditation on Psalm 51 here, but didn’t get to it in my Sunday School class.)

One important difference between the two passages is that Daniel 9 is a corporate prayer of repentance, while Psalm 51 is individual. Each has individual elements and corporate elements, but the emphasis is far different. This is why Psalm 51 applies to the sin of David with Bathsheba so well. Daniel, on the other hand, is meditating on the fact that Judah has not been restored.

Daniel is treated as righteous in the Bible. While we assume that he is human, and thus had faults and failings, none are presented. This is notable, since the Bible, unlike many other official histories, does not hesitate to present faults. Much of our historical material about Israel, while based on official chronicles (at least according to the text), are actually written by critics of the various regimes. Yet Daniel is presented positively.

Here, however, Daniel is not afraid of the word “we.” He identifies with his people Israel (or Judah) has failed. He repents for all, and doing so identifies himself with all. There is a fine line here that we need to watch. By taking on the failings of everyone in a group, we can became paralyzed by shame and simple disgust. At the same time, recognizing that we are part of a group that has done certain things is critical. It becomes the foundation of changing the group.

Some want to emphasize the individual aspect of confession and repentance. Others think largely in corporate terms. In a church that has done wrong, treated members badly, provided a poor witness to the community, turned its back on those in need or who are suffering, it’s important for those who pray to confess what the church has done. You may have done everything you could, but at corporate confession time, it’s a matter of the group. I think the answer to corporate vs. personal is flexible and varied. The person in the right who says “let’s” rather than “you should” can be the catalyst of real change in a group or even in a nation.

Here’s a diagram I used in class. Well, actually, I drew with a marker on a white board, and did much worse than this, but whatever!

The scriptures I would apply are 1 John 4:7 & 20. Of course, as always, I recommend reading the entire passage. We try to prioritize loving God over loving one another, but John ties them together, and I think Jesus does as well when he says the second commandment is like the first. You won’t fulfill one without the other.

A good prayer of individual confession and repentance should draw you upward toward God. If it results in wallowing in guilt, you aren’t really getting it. If your prayer of confession distances you from others, you may have a problem.

How corporate should it be? That depends on what is needed. As long as we keep the lines even, drawing closer to others also means drawing closer to God. “Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God, but the unloving know nothing of God, for God is love” (1 John 1:7-8). You can also test that love for one another by asking whether it draws you and the one you love upward as well.

This is only a short test, and it’s a bit like a pithy one-liner. Yes, you can get off track. But I think it helps. My hope is to keep the lines of even length and yet shorten the distance. Closer to God and closer to others. That should be my goal in life, and especially in confession and repentance. If love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10), then the chief confession is going to be my lack of love, and my repentance will be a turning toward the other points on this triangle.

Try it! It might help!

Here are some books on prayer and forgiveness.


Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

This past Tuesday night I had a conversation about forgiveness (with a long interlude on fiction writing!) with author Nick May. Nick was a last minute stand-in for two guests. My wife Jody was unable to participate because of a sore throat. Renee Crosby, author of the recent release The Fringe, had catastrophic technical difficulties, and Nick was available. We’re going to interview him along with his colleague, contemporary, and fellow fiction author Heath Taws on March 31. Besides being a fiction author (Megabelt, Minutemen, Molecricket), Nick is the pastor of Northstar Church’s Pensacola campus. Here’s the video:

One of the topics we discussed was Matthew 6:14-15: “If you forgive other people their trespasses, your heavenly father will forgive yours. But if you don’t forgive other people, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.” Interesting and harsh! Well, perhaps just realistic. I wonder if the person who remains unforgiving can ever truly be forgiven. Nick and I discuss this in the video. I think that forgiveness involves reconciliation, i.e., it’s a two way street. This doesn’t mean that an individual can’t get it started, and can’t benefit from a forgiving attitude. On the contrary, I think it’s important to give up the burden of resentment against someone else, even if they will not participate. In addition, someone has to get started. What I’m suggesting is that unforgiveness creates an atmosphere in which it’s hard, or even impossible, to receive forgiveness. Maintaining a separation between ourselves and other people also creates a separation between us and God.

One thing I didn’t have time to bring up in the discussion is a suggested translation in Leviticus 5:17 from Dr. Jacob Milgrom, author of the Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus 5:17. This passage refers to someone who has transgressed and doesn’t know that he has done so. Milgrom suggests that the Hebrew ‘asham when it occurs without an object, means “feel guilt” as opposed to incurring guilt or being guilty. So this passage would best be rendered: “If a person transgresses, and has committed one of the acts with the commands forbid but he doesn’t know it, when he feels guilt, he will bear his responsibility.” The idea is that this sacrifice is for a time when one feels guilty, but is uncertain of what act may have caused that guilt. Thus we have a sacrifice for making oneself feel better! (This last line is my point, not Milgrom’s.) This is covered in detail on pages 343-345 of Volume 1 of his commentary, part of his comments on the reparation offering. I found his suggestion entirely convincing.

Finally, this morning in my e-mail I received my regular eNewsletter from Rabbi Moffic, who was talking about forgiveness. His particular topic was forgiving ourselves, or receiving forgiveness. His remarks (and the Jewish parable he tells) are well worthwhile. While you’re at his site, consider subscribing to his newsletter. I’ve found it very helpful.


Is Christianity the Best Deal in the Universe?

Is Christianity the Best Deal in the Universe?

So says Ann Coulter, paraphrasing an accusation made against Brit Hume when he suggested that Tiger Woods should become a Christian:

With Christianity, your sins are forgiven, the slate is wiped clean and your eternal life is guaranteed through nothing you did yourself, even though you don’t deserve it. It’s the best deal in the universe.

Now in fairness I must point out that this is the final paragraph of a substantial post and that two paragraphs earlier Coulter points out that Christianity is also the hardest religion in the world.

But before I try to answer the question I asked in the title, let me point out that I have no problem with Brit Hume in his opinion show. By being a Christian myself, I make the obvious statement that in some way I prefer that religion over others. When I give specific testimony of what Christianity has done in my own life, I can certainly be heard as saying that other religions might not have done the same thing.

I think it’s silly that we expect people not to express their opinions about religion in a political show on television. We allow opinions, some of them offensive, about almost anything else. I would point out to my fellow believers, however, that when we allow opinions about religion, that must include the opponents of religion. I regularly encounter Christians who are incensed that someone would say nasty things about their faith in the media. Blasphemy laws are becoming popular in some quarters.

But just as I find it quite acceptable for Brit Hume to suggest that Tiger Woods change his religion (though as a Christian I don’t find it all that profitable), I also find it acceptable for atheists to suggest that my faith is silly or counterproductive. That doesn’t mean I agree with them in any way. I just believe it is right and proper that their viewpoint should be expressed.

Having said all of that off topic, the problem I have here is with the reference to Christianity as a “deal.” I find Ann Coulter’s style pretty much useless. She’s trying to make this interesting and humorous, or at least that’s what I guess, but she fails miserably. All she does is make it seem wrong.

Christianity is not a deal in which one utters some words and gets off for all that one has done. That’s an excessively simplistic reading of the situation. Following Jesus is a surrender of oneself, after which one may find oneself nonetheless facing the consequences of those actions. Of course, I hear risk conflating eternal salvation and forgiveness by God with one’s current life. But I think if one reads more than the few verses that Coulter has quoted, there is a good deal in Christian theology that conflates those ideas.

One doesn’t accept Christ and get off free or even easy. One accepts Christ and has one’s life taken over. One invites redemption, change, recreation. Everything is new.

Now if I didn’t so dislike the word “deal,” I might describe this as a good deal. But I think it is no more a “deal” that it is my thirst being quenched when I drink water a “deal” with the universe. It’s a gift, not a deal. Where we get off course is when we think the gift, which Coulter describes as a deal in her final paragraph, ever comes without the hard part, which she describes two paragraphs before.

I’m not going to compare Christianity to Buddhism or any other faith. I have never found much value in comparison and contrast, especially by someone like me, who has practiced one but not the other. What I will say is that what Christianity demands of me is redemption, and it would demand the same of Tiger Woods.

Having God’s forgiveness in the midst of all that is life-changing, indeed critical, in my view. But it still leaves the hard work of my forgiveness of myself, my gaining forgiveness from others, reconciliation, and recreation.

It’s not a deal. Its’ a gift. And inside the gift package is some very hard work.

PS: I find the title of her post–“If you can find a better deal, take it”–even less compatible with Christianity.

Forgiving or Excusing

Forgiving or Excusing

I’ve noticed in recent discussions both online and offline that there seems to be some fuzziness about the difference between these two concepts. I think that perhaps our human tendency is to either excuse or condemn.

By “excusing” I mean either minimizing a transgression or perhaps even claiming it’s not a transgression at all. When we fail to find an excuse, then we condemn. It’s hard to both regard an action as truly wrong and damaging, and yet to forgive. It’s hard to forgive when someone does not regard their actions as truly wrong.

I would argue, however, that there is a part of forgiveness that we should embrace even when the perpetrator of the action is not repentant. We need to give up our own resentment and rage that make us do irrational things in response to wrongs. That doesn’t mean we need to excuse the person or let them by with the action; merely that we need to bring ourselves to the point where we can respond rationally.

Politicians tend to give non-apologies, or, in the terms I’m using in this post, they try to excuse their actions. Their hope is not that we will think they did something terribly wrong, are sorry for it, and that we should forgive. Their hope is that we will decide they weren’t so very wrong after all.

Many of us actually like it to work that way, because it is easier to condemn or minimize than it is to forgive. A pastor who fails us, yet acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness, has still hurt us. But there can and should be an opportunity for forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness doesn’t eliminate consequences. Often there is a rush to restoration, especially with very famous people. But for many others, who may have as much potential even though they lack the fame, there is no rush. There may, in fact, be no plan for redemption at all.

I would suggest that we need to be very careful to hold people accountable, to acknowledge the true nature of transgressions, yet where there is repentance, we need to be ready to forgive and restore under appropriate circumstances. It’s much harder than either condemning or excusing, but it’s the way of grace.

Languages of Forgiveness

Languages of Forgiveness

Christianity Today has an interesting article on languages of apology (and forgiveness). There are a number of helpful thoughts in this piece that can be helpful. The author, Gary Chapman (The Love Languages of God, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate) relates this to couples, in which I think it has the most use, but it would apply in other contexts as well.

I think there is a danger of one using specific language in apology to avoid apologizing at all. The political apology (if I happen to have done anything wrong, I apologize) in which no wrongdoing is admitted, or the apology for another’s weakness (I’m sorry you’re so thin skinned as to be hurt by what I said) are generally not languages of apology, but rather languages by which one avoids apology.

At the same time, understanding that not everyone means the same thing by the same words will be helpful in building communication. It’s worth looking at.

Focusing the Atonement

Focusing the Atonement

Peter Kirk has been involved in some extended debates about the atonement, and you can read about it here and here. Peter has written some good stuff on understanding the atonement. I have generally just been saying that we must recognize our ways of explaining the atonement as metaphors, and not as the reality. A metaphor is good, and is the only way we can talk about God, but when you place the metaphor above the reality, or make the metaphor into the reality, you get into a sort of doctrinal idolatry. I say that not to provoke, but simply because there is an important similarity. In the idolatry that involves the worship of a physical image, the danger is that one mistakes symbol for reality, and starts to give adoration to the created thing, rather than the creator. This in turn tends to get everything else out of balance. The same thing happens with a metaphor, which will better illustrate some things than others. If the metaphor replaces the reality at the center, then one’s entire vision can get skewed.

So what do I believe must be at the center of our view of the atonement? Since we are always short of speaking absolutely correctly about God, there is a danger in defining this, but if I can grab something from all of the metaphors and all of the Biblical writers it would be this: God did it. That is the focus of scriptural statements. Protecting that one fact is the focus of many Biblical rebukes. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul didn’t say that it’s OK for you to do a few extra works, just so long as you also trust in Jesus. He said that putting your trust in those works meant that you were denying Jesus (Galatians 5:2).

Elsewhere, however, he said that he would become “as one under the law” (1 Cor. 9:20) to reach those who were under the law. The circumstances were different at the church in Corinth. There was even a party there (“I am of Christ” – 1 Cor. 1:12) that made a special point of pride of being followers of Christ. What’s wrong with that? Well, if you set yourself up as superior to others because of your status, then there’s very much wrong with it. The whole first epistle to the Corinthians stands against the notion that any physical, temporal thing about us makes us superior to others.

A key fact about the “foolishness of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1) is that I don’t get to be at the center any more. I’m saved by grace, pure grace, and I am not superior to anyone else spiritually. I can know more about some things. I may be able to do some things better, but as far as being God’s child, I have nothing whatsoever to boast about.

The very human temptation, however, is to make me feel superior. This temptation comes in many ways. Doctrines of holiness can easily become means of making a superior category of believers. I’ve encountered churches where the intercessors were an exclusive club of superior believers. These folks had made their call to pray for other people into a badge of superiority. But our desire to be superior for any reason has been eliminated, because God broke past the barrier between infinite and finite in the person of Jesus Christ. That profound thought led Paul to say,

(26) You’re all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. (29) For as many as have been baptized into Christ are wearing Christ as a garment. (28) There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29) For if you belong to Christ, then you’re Abraham’s seed, and according to the promise–heirs! — Galatians 3:26-29 (my translation)

Our distinctions have been wiped out in the incarnation. We want to revive them. We want to feel more special than others. But all our versions of “special” have been torn apart, bulldozed, leveled in the cross of Christ. We are all equally recipients of grace. I teach a doctrine I call infinite ignorance. God is infinite, there is an infinite amount to be known about him. I know something of God, but when you subtract any finite amount from infinity, infinity still remains.

The same thing goes for grace. Infinite grace has been poured out on us. My brother or sister in the faith may have required more grace than I, but when you subtract that difference from infinity, infinity remains. Our distinctions are meaningless under the infinite outpouring of grace.

Now if we can keep focused on that one point, I think we will get less out of balance. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong doctrine don’t matter for anything. It doesn’t mean that right or wrong behavior don’t matter. It’s just that they don’t matter for salvation, because that is God’s business. It means that they don’t make me or you closer to God.

We try to escape this in so many ways. For Paul in Galatia it was folks who thought that Gentiles needed to become Jews first in order to be Christians. They had to keep Torah, be circumcised, obey the food laws, keep feasts, and so forth. Paul had no problem with Jews being Jews. He had a problem with that distinction being made important for God’s salvation.

The individual believer pursuing holiness is placed in danger of seeing that holiness as a way of earning God’s favor. The fact is that holiness is part of the grace that God gives. It is a result of God’s favor, unearned by you, and not a badge of distinction.

We can try to make our position superior by means of doctrine. Doctrine learned and taught as our best efforts to understand and receive from God is wonderful, but when we try to make our doctrinal knowledge a badge of superiority over someone else than we have fallen short of the reality of grace. That includes my own doctrine. These words are just my stumbling way of trying to express the experience of the grace of God, and I can recognize how poorly I express it even as I write it. But even when I think the words are flowing beautifully, when I feel my writing is inspired, if I believe that makes me superior to the person who teaches a view of penal substitutionary atonement that makes my blood boil, I have fallen short of the mark set by God’s grace.

I can’t earn it by spiritual discipline, I can’t earn it by theological knowledge, I can’t earn it by a life of ethical decision making. I can only receive it by grace, with no point of pride left to me whatsoever.

There’s the scandal of the cross. Christians are confronted at various times with the dilemma of a mass murderer who, with his final breath, accepts Jesus Christ as savior. “Will that man go to heaven?” we are asked. Too often we stumble. It’s too hard to accept that the mass murderer might find himself in heaven next to a saint who spent a lifetime giving and suffering. But such is the reality of grace. Such is the scandal of the cross. God is about redemption, not about punishment. This doesn’t mean there are no consequences, and no punishment. It does mean that in God’s view vengeance isn’t in the driver’s seat; grace is. If that person sincerely seeks God’s forgiveness and receives God’s grace with his last breath, no matter how horribly evil he has been, he receives. Infinite grace always trumps finite evil. If that’s too scandalous for you, you need to spend some more time at the cross.

In Turkey recently three Christian workers were brutally murdered. The widow of one of them has expressed forgiveness in an interview on Turkish television (source – scroll down to bottom or search text for April 20, 2007). That’s grace in action. That’s not easy. Humanly, I suspect it’s not even possible. But there it is.

The cross is a scandal. Live with it!