“Go and Sin No More”? You don’t get to say that. Ever.

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We hear it all the time. We can argue the grace and forgiveness of Jesus till the cows come home, how he forgave the woman caught in adultery. “Neither do I condemn you.” “See how gracious Jesus is?” we say. And then some smart Christian inevitably comes back with, “Yeah, but he also said, ‘Go and sin no more.'”

And there goes the image of a gracious Jesus out the window. Like a political ad for local politician: “Jesus: not soft on crime, not soft on sin.” Might as well just go back to Levitical law.

This morning, though, a new thought dropped into my head. I’d been talking about random things with God, and somewhere in the back of my head I must have had this annoying scenario playing out. Yeah, I HAD just read that recently in one of those Christian forums on Facebook. The topic was “gays and Christianity,” as it always seems to be these days, and some guy threw that back in someone’s face: “Go and sin no more.” Annoyed me, but I walked away, not wanting to engage in that pointless discussion for the millionth time.

So I guess the thought wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it did surprise me anyway. Wasn’t expecting that. Wasn’t even actively asking God about it. But you know, when you’re just chatting with God over your morning coffee, he’ll throw things at you you weren’t expecting.

go_and_sin_no_more“You don’t get to say that. Only Jesus can say that to someone.” Just like when he said a few moments before to the crowd who wanted to kill the poor woman, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and they all walked away, recognizing their own failings and weaknesses. Jesus was the only one there who qualified. He was the only one there without sin, so he was the only one qualified to throw a stone — and he chose not to. Now THERE’S an image of grace for you: “the only one qualified to condemn you chooses not to.”

Then, when the crowd has all gone their separate ways, he turns back to the terrified woman crouched on the ground, humiliated, embarrassed, shamed. And he says these wonderful, tender words to her. “Where are your accusers?” — Hey, look. He makes the point himself: he is NOT one of her accusers. — “Neither do I condemn you.” And then the words thrown back at us gay believers too many times: “But go and sin no more.” Well, Jesus never says the “but.” It’s not a condition or a contradiction. His grace isn’t conditional on our perfection.

Here’s the kicker. The only one who was qualified to throw the stone, the only one qualified to condemn her, is also the only one who gets to say “go and sin no more.”

The rest of us are too imperfect, too guilty of our own shortcomings. We’re in no position to judge anybody. Kinda like that thing he said to another crowd somewhere else: “First take care of the log in your own eye before you try to remove the splinter from someone else’s.” So, we’re also in no position to tell someone else to stop sinning. Ever — or at least until we’ve reached perfection ourselves.

So the next time some argumentative Christian throws that line in your face — “Jesus also said to go and sin no more” — you can respond, “the only person who gets to say that to me is the only one qualified to throw that first stone. And it isn’t you.”

Go in peace. You are LOVED — and He isn’t one of your accusers.


photo credit: Jesus and the Woman, from : The Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos (LDS)

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions.Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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An Ox on the Sabbath

Compassion trumps correctness.
Relationship is more important than being right.

Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have been having a lengthy theological discussion over a point of Scripture.  Both of us see our stance as reflecting the heart of God, both see our point as being crucial to the future of people’s lives and immortal souls, and both of us seem committed to our respective sides of the truth.  (Hmm, could it be that we’re both right?)  I won’t prejudice the discussion by elaborating on it here since it is still ongoing, and although it is unlikely, knowing our personalities, that we’ll reach a point of agreement, what is remarkable to me is the willingness on both our parts to even have this dialogue. 

I respect my brother.  He is an honest man, one who seeks after God’s will, and as far as I can tell, he is a commendable husband and father and a successful businessman.  More important than all of that, I love him.  If we never see eye to eye on this particular “crucial” issue, I hope it never becomes a wedge in our relationship.  Oh, that this were how I felt about other people in my life with whom I have serious disagreements!

In the Bible, after hanging around Jesus for a while and slowly learning what is important to his master’s heart, Peter begins feeling a bit proud of himself, a bit holy.  He’s made strides in his spiritual life, he’s in tight with God’s appointed Messiah, and has been promised a prominent position in judging the tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom.  At one of those confident moments he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:22).

We’ve all had these thoughts.  Usually over some matter of personal offense: a common source of disharmony between close people, and a poisoner of relationships.  Peter probably thinks he’s going over the top with his generous offer. Seven times!  (Jewish tradition at that time suggested that one ought to forgive an offense up to the fourth time — that is, forgive three times, but the fourth offense has crossed the line — so Peter’s offer is twice the going rate.)  Jesus’ answer shocks everyone and puts Peter’s generosity to shame.  “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  Even today, we devoted believers find this number hard to swallow.

But along with the point that we shouldn’t be counting offenses and should forgive as many times as we’d like to be forgiven ourselves, Jesus illustrates the point that we should never let our disagreements, our offenses (no matter who is right), be cause for breaking fellowship. We’re to put up with each other’s faults, bearing in mind that we’ve got plenty of our own — that whole “don’t try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log sticking out of yours” thing.  The relational bonds between people are more important than being right, or getting our just deserves.  Everyone needs forgiveness, everyone needs compassion.  We’ll never reach perfection in this lifetime, so we’re going to need as much forgiveness and compassion as we can get.

This is a spiritual law higher, and more important, than other laws we seem to become preoccupied with.  It is too easy for us to focus on our differences, to see what is clearly wrong with someone else.  It is too easy to hold grudges, to cut that person off, to dismiss them from our lives, or to surrender to the position of “irreconcilable differences” over matters that are in reality insignificant.  We focus on the trivial; we love the letter of the law.  We love to critique each other, and show how the other is falling far short of the standard.  This is our basic instinct, our flawed human nature.  But, borrowing an image from common life in ancient Palestine, if an ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, isn’t it better to break the law forbidding work on that holy day, and save the poor beast out of simple human compassion?   The law of love, the principle of compassion, the bonds of relationship, override other considerations.  It makes all other disputes insignificant in comparison. 

What does this mean in real life?  Where does the rubber meet the road?  Whether it’s some major doctrinal disagreement between brothers, or a deep, grievous personal offense among co-workers at the office, disharmony is the greater evil.  Letting the offense fester and become a bitter source of division is a bigger wrong.  In the long run — and I believe, in God’s eyes — who is right is less important than preserving fellowship.  Being correct is less important than dealing compassionately with one another.  After all, God’s presence, his power, and his love are displayed most clearly when people united by a more powerful bond are gathered together.  And isn’t that a better thing than being right?

Starting 2009 out right: “Let it Go!”

So many people I know have commented how glad they are to see 2008 in their rear-view mirror, and how they’re looking forward to so much change in 2009.  For many of them, there were some serious crises they had to endure, some painful experiences they’ve undergone, and they want to put it all behind them and forget that 2008 ever happened.  And it got me thinking.  Maybe the best way to start out this new year is by REALLY letting go of the troubles of last year.  And it may be as simple as the word “forgive”.

Some people really know how to hold on to a grudge.  It’s almost a badge of honor for them, or like an old scar they’re proud to show off.  Conversations regularly include some reminder of the wrong that was done to them — sometimes 1, 2, 5, or even 10 years ago, and often by people long gone out of their lives or even dead.  Yet the trace of bitterness remains.

To some extent, I think we’ve all had to deal with this in our own lives.  No one goes through life unscathed.  But moving into a happier new year means having to be able to just “Let it go”.

Usually this is easier said than done.  But for me, it’s become a deliberate exercise, something I continually have to work on.  The word “forgive” has so many goody-goody, holy attributes associated with it that I can’t seem to live up to.  I end up trying to rationalize the other person’s position so that I have a reason to forgive them, to help ease my own anger.  “Well, the reason they did this was because … so I guess I can understand that, and I can forgive them.”   But that really defeats the spirit of forgiveness.  And what if I can’t justify their position?

I have to remind myself of the core meaning of the word “forgive”: to release, let go.  In that simple sense, devoid of artificial “spiritual” baggage, it becomes a simple matter of choice, not feeling.  I “choose” to release the offense and the offender.  Not because they deserve it, not because their side is defensible, and not even because I feel like it.  I choose to let it go because Jesus wants me to let it go, and because it’ll only hurt ME if I hold on to it.  I let it go so I can move on.

This probably sounds really basic, but for me it was a great revelation.  It’s a choice.  You just let it go as an act of your will, not because you feel holy.  And when the feelings of anger or hurt come back (you may never actually forget the injury), you just remind yourself, “I’ve already released that,” and move on.  Sometimes it takes several remindings, but eventually I am able to put something behind me and not let it effect my relationship with the person who hurt me.

It’s an on-going effort, to be sure.  But forgiveness is at the core of our faith.  If we can’t do this, I wonder how we’ll ever grow.  If we want to move into this great new year of change and blessing, we need to learn to move beyond the painful past.  We need to learn to just “let it go.”