In my last post, I brought up the question of whether rape was forgivable. I chose that example because it was (personally) the biggest forgiveness mountain I’ve ever had to climb. I know others have had bigger and tougher mountains, for sure. But my point in that example was really to provide some context for a human perspective on forgiveness and to imply the question, what’s the limit of human forgiveness?
I suppose that at some level, we all have some degree of insult, wrongdoing, or suffering that we wouldn’t be able to forgive. So if (most?) humans have a forgiveness threshold, what about God? As the old saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” right? Is there anything out there that God can’t (or won’t) forgive?
For a long time, the Catholic Church deemed suicide the only “unforgivable” act. Why? Because, it was thought, there was no opportunity for repentance. But, as the world grew in its understanding of mental illness over the last 50-ish years, the Catholic Church has relaxed their stance on the issue. From the Catholic news outlet Crux:
Suicide, objectively, is a grave sin. God has gifted us with life. We are only its stewards, not its masters. But in reminding us of that, the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2282 is quick to note that the moral responsibility for a suicide may be diminished because the inner turmoil a person was going through precluded sound reasoning.
The catechism goes on to say in No. 2283 that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
In contrast to older versions of the Code of Canon Law, Canon No. 1184 no longer lists a person who died by suicide as someone who should not be given a Christian funeral.
Moral judgment in such cases is best left to God. The Church’s approach to the tragedy is pity, not condemnation…
It seems that God has a pretty generous capacity for forgiveness. Remember Jesus on the cross? (Luke 23:33-35) “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
If I recall correctly, Jesus didn’t have any unanswered prayers. So if murdering His son in a brutal and humiliating fashion is still forgivable, where is the line? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
I once heard a preacher remark “that man’s capacity to sin does not exceed God’s capacity to forgive.” The preacher elaborated, saying that you could commit genocide, and if you truly repented, God would forgive you. To take it one step further, think of Adolf Hitler. If, as he laid on the floor of his bunker with the blood running out from his self-inflicted gunshot wound, he had the realization, “oh no, I was wrong. Jesus you are the Son of God. Forgive me,” he would have died and gone straight to heaven.
But an awful lot of Christians have a problem with that. Why? Because Christians, after all, are still people. And people have a generally defined sense of fair. We are raised to believe, and rightly so, that actions have consequences, nothing is free, and this generally equals that.
Jesus addresses this head-on in one of my favorite parables, The Workers in the Vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-16)
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
I look at this parable as a perfect example of life as a Christian. The day refers to one’s lifetime. The Christians who live their whole lives turning from sin and never indulging in “those pleasures” are the laborers who work the entire day. At different points of their lives, people come to Jesus. Some go their entire lives walking with Him perfectly in lockstep. Others, come to Jesus in their final years, or even days. But no matter when people accept the Lord into their hearts, Jesus welcomes them all into heaven. And just like the laborers who worked the whole day, Christians often have a problem with this… “But I lived my whole life never drinking, smoking, partying… Why does this person who lived a wild life for their first 60 years get the same reward?” Or, to go back to our previous example, why would a guy who did what Hitler did go to the same place and get the same reward as Mother Teresa?
Jesus offers another point for consideration in a parable to a Pharisee named Simon: (Luke 7:36-50)
Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
The truth is, even though human do, God does not rejoice in the damnation of bad people. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)
But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
He would rather see every human saved. And so if a man as far gone as Adolf Hitler could have done a 180 in his final seconds, I believe that all the souls in heaven would have rejoiced, not because he was one step ahead of the jailer, but because of how far he came to get back to God. What an amazing testimony it would have been for somebody who was that terrible to completely repent. It would have given hope for just about anyone who was lost.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7-10)
Obviously, none of us ever knew Adolf Hitler. And none of us were in that bunker at the end. I don’t believe for a second that he repented and turned back to God, if he ever knew Him. Remember the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? I’ve heard a lot of preachers say that very few people come to Jesus late in life, and unfortunately, that makes sense. After doing so many things their own way for so long, almost no one is willing to just say, “I was completely wrong” and repent in their hearts, turning away from the life they spent the last 40, 50, 60, 90 years living. If you spend any time with old people, you probably know how hard it can be to get them to change something as simple as a driving habit. But something as deeply ingrained as personal, moral, or religious beliefs? Forget about it.
So, to answer my original question, what is the limit of God’s forgiveness? My opinion is that the limit of God’s forgiveness is just a hair beyond our willingness to accept His forgiveness. God will forgive us just as much as we’re willing to ask for forgiveness.
Many years ago, a priest was making the case to encourage people to come to confession. The analogy he used was a child with a favorite blanket, and that even though that blanket is dirty, stinks, and is falling apart and in desperate need of repair, the child just wants to cling to it and not let it go. The priest said that he sees people do the same thing with their sins – they cling to them the same way and refuse to let go. But, that’s our choice, and God will respect it.
Today is Good Friday. Make up your mind to receive the gift that God has given us all – the gift of forgiveness that we celebrate today – and come back to Him.