To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
It’s no surprise that author and pastor Tim Keller, who spent decades leading a congregation in Manhattan, often heard the question, “Does God really exist?”
But in his conversations with New Yorkers he heard another question even more frequently: “If God is a God of love, why can’t he just forgive everybody?”
The Christian God, in the minds of many, sounds a lot like the vengeful deities from primitive times who demanded appeasement by means of human sacrifice. Can’t God just accept us if we’re sorry for the wrong things we’ve done? Jesus’ death on the cross – which he said was “for us” – seems outrageous. And unnecessary. A handful of contemporary theologians have even suggested that Good Friday reeks of “divine child abuse.”
As Keller points out, however, any time somebody makes a mistake, somebody has to pay.
If I back my car into your car in the Target parking lot and crumple your back door, you might graciously choose to forgive me. But somebody is still going to have to pay for that damage. Either you will pay for it or I will pay for it. Or perhaps the GEICO gecko, Flo from Progressive, or that emu from Liberty-Liberty-Liberty will foot the bill. Let’s not fool ourselves for a minute by thinking that forgiveness means simply wiping somebody’s slate clean. That doesn’t happen when real damage has been done.
The Wall Street bailout of 2008-2009 cost almost half a trillion dollars. Washington largely chose to forgive the financial misdeeds of certain organizations because they were deemed “too big to fail.” But someone still has to pay. In this case it will be hundreds of millions of taxpayers, many of whom aren’t yet born, who will be paying for that season of fiscal malfeasance for a very long time.
Most people understand the damage from Wall Street recklessness and a certain pastor’s careless driving habits at Target.
But they draw the line when it comes to what they personally might owe God. What damages have they inflicted that would require something as drastic as the death of Jesus?
Here we need to ponder the Bible’s sober account of humanity’s standing before God. What exactly does the Bible mean by sin? Sin isn’t just doing bad things. It is putting good things in the place of God. Sin means elevating secondary priorities to first place, and thereby trying to find an identity and a purpose for ourselves apart from God. That is the ultimate transgression, and all of us are guilty of it.
Our sins have done real damage. We have damaged ourselves. We have damaged each other. And we have damaged our relationship with our Creator.
Keller points out in his book Counterfeit Gods that we tend to look at our own achievements, love relationships, talents, and social status to give us meaning, hope, purpose, and even salvation. We live as if looking good, feeling good, and making good will have the power to rescue us from the meaninglessness of facing another day.
But this strategy is guaranteed to fail.
If I forge my identity around anything other than God, whatever threatens that identity is going to scare me to death. People who idolize their own bodies can be freaked out by wrinkles. Nothing, however, is going to halt the relentless process of aging. People who build their status around being great parents can be deeply threatened when their kids start doing things that aren’t written into the ideal script.
For years, a big chunk of my identity was being the pastor of a church that didn’t experience major problems and pains. When such problems and pains came anyway, it’s amazing how insecure I felt as I finally grasped the degree to which I had not been depending on God for my self-understanding.
Again, sin is not simply doing bad things. Sin is putting good things in the place of God. If we don’t live for God, we will most certainly live for something else. And that will ultimately cause incredible damage to us and everyone around us.
Who is able to address such damage? Keller writes, “If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, ‘If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!’ But we are all pursued by guilt if we don’t live up to our identity. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you – who breathed his last breath for you… Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.”
That forgiveness is costly, however.
Who can afford to purchase a new life after that life has been wrecked by selling out to anything less than God?
Only God can pay such a price. And God did it through his Son’s death on the cross.
Years ago I was standing in line at a lunchtime salad bar on Good Friday. I was chatting with a friend about our upcoming Good Friday service when a complete stranger turned around and asked, “Why do they call it Good Friday, anyways? It certainly wasn’t good for Jesus!”
No, it wasn’t. But things become very, very good for those who receive what Jesus did on the cross as a life-changing gift.
Here’s what we discover in the New Testament: I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, but I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.
That’s wonderful news for those of us – and that would be all of us – who have run up a tab that only God can pay.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.