Sunday is a day when it is easy to find a priest if you want to mention, ask, or chat about something. Most topics are simple and straight forward, but once in a while someone asks a question that is very different from the others. It is then that the conversation is too important to have on the sidewalk but is better suited to a moment when time is more available and others are not waiting to chat or to simply offer their greetings.
Some time ago, a person asked if I thought there are “times we need to forgive God?” My first reaction was, “Sorry, could you repeat that?” Definitely one of those “can we talk about this in the office?” questions. That is when the person let me know they were a visitor. The best I could offer in the moment was, “I will have to think about that.”
That was a better response than my first reaction, left unexpressed: “Seriously?” along with an intuitive “that ain’t right.” It seemed to me that somewhere there was a basic understanding that we humans sin and God forgives. That is just the way it works. When would a situation arise that required us to forgive God?
Of course the person went on their way leaving me to speculate as to the root of the question. There is a part of me that wondered if it was just another modern feel-good encroachment into the sphere of faith aimed at making sure no one feels bad about themselves. The school of thought that says we don’t want anyone to feel shame, guilt, dishonor, remorse, even if…. well… that might just be an appropriate human response to what the person has done.
Or perhaps this was a new (or old) theological heresy. The TV charlatans have a way of resurrecting the old heresies as the latest gambit to separate us from our money. The thing about heresy is that it asks very interesting questions, even if they are judged to come down on the wrong side of the answer. So maybe I should stop and think about the question, even if it seemed a bit odd.
Are there times we need to forgive God? When I pondered a bit longer it seems many Christians operate under basic assumptions. Consider these: trust in God and He will not let you down. If God shuts the door, He opens a window. Nothing happens in the world that is outside God’s plan and perfect will. And yet there is sorrow, suffering, burdens, barriers, inequality, and injustice in the world – and more. We feel a little let down, can’t see the open portal, and if this is “the plan” we want a revision. Of course with all of our human presumptions about God we set ourselves up to be disappointed when we cannot hear God respond in the moments that we most want God to respond. It is then that we join the women and men of Scripture.
The Psalms record numerous times when the cry is “My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” (22:2) The author of Lamentations writes, “The Lord has become the enemy…” (2:5). Job rages on for chapters against God who seems distant and hidden. The ancestors in faith all had moments when they did not understand, felt hurt and betrayed, and had no idea what to do next, nor how to process the mystery that is God. The thing is that they still wanted God in their lives even as they expressed their disappointments. They didn’t walk away; they were not indifferent. I wondered if any of those incidents were moments when our ancestors have the passing thought: “I need to forgive God.”
Did you know that the origin of the word “forgive” comes from an old English word forgiefan, which is itself made up of two words: giefan, meaning “give” and for-, meaning “completely.” So the word forgiefan conveys the sense of giving completely. Perhaps there is a sense that we need to forgive God if what is meant is that we need to give ourselves completely to God – as God has already given completely: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16) God has given us his oath, his covenant, in the life, death, and Resurrection of his Son. “God so loved…”
I find it interesting that another and surprising meaning of forgiefan is “to give in marriage.” I think that all couples whose marriages have endured for decades can tell stories of moments they did not understand, felt hurt and betrayed, and had no idea of what to do next, nor how to express the mystery that is love. The thing is that they still wanted their spouse in their life even as they expressed their disappointments. They did not walk away, they were not indifferent. The same can be said of parents and children as well as friars and their fraternity.
In our relationships we don’t become angry with people we do not care about. We don’t fight about things for which we are indifferent. We struggle for the things that matter. We are hurt, disappointed, and disheartened, but we work towards forgiving. We work to again give ourselves completely to the relationship, to the covenant that is marriage, family, and fraternity – to the covenant of faith that is made in the person of Jesus Christ.
So maybe there are times we need to forgiefan God. We need to renew our part in the covenant and again give ourselves completely to God. To work towards “forgiving” God is to insist that He matters above all else. It is to say, “God, no matter what you say, don’t say, do, or don’t do, you, I, and this community are in this for the long haul. I will not let you go.”
Sometimes the conversation is too important to have on the sidewalk.