Earlier I spoke with a young woman who is a mother of four children. I will call her Jane. Several weeks ago Jane’s husband left her and the children for another woman. As you can imagine, Jane is emotionally devastated feeling hurt, humiliated, and abandoned. One of the repercussions of her husband leaving has left Jane and her children in an economically unstable situation. As I listened to her story, I learned of a life that seemingly was placed on the wrong path from before her birth through the choices made by her parents and others. From a very early age, Jane’s parents taught Jane how to shop lift and commit other petty crimes. Such parental instruction opened the door for Jane to make other wrong decisions as a teenager and very young adult. One of those decisions wound up costing her three years in prison.
As I listened to Jane’s story, I also saw Jane begin to cry. She is trying to seek out God and live life as God created us to live right now. But as she seeks righteousness she also is haunted by her past. She judges herself and emotionally batters herself for the mistakes she has made. She wants people to see who she is now and what she can become rather that who she was but she continues to feel the yoke of judgment, condemnation, and hatred for her past. I suppose such feelings come from both her own difficulty in forgiving herself as well as the difficulty of finding forgiveness in a harsh world that seldom manifests any grace (especially towards those who have been incarcerated). Having her husband abandon her seems to have reaffirmed all of the scornful feelings that have arisen due to her past.
After leaving, I began reflecting upon my meeting with Jane. I began to wonder what sort of grace there is for Jane. More importantly, how is Jane to find the redemption and hope that she is looking for and so desperately needs. Well, one might respond she needs Jesus; she needs to know that Jesus died for her sins and that through repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus she can be forgiven. Well, my response is yes, this is certainly true but yet there still seems to be something lacking. You might ask what is lacking and this is what I want to address.
It seems that a lot of theological talk about forgiveness, grace, justification from sin, etc…is true but it only deals with redemption and hope from a legal or forensic aspect. Thus, when people come into Christ they are technically or legally justified from sin and now rightfully are entitled to the life of redemption and hope in Christ. Though this is certainly true, many people fail to experience this redemption and hope. Perhaps an illustration will help. I once knew of a person who was accused of child molestation. This person had his name dragged through the papers and press, receiving a media trial that destroyed his reputation and career long before he ever received a legal trial in a court of law. During his legal trial, his accuser, upon cross-examination, was shown to be committing false testimony. As a result, this man was legally declared innocent of the charges against him. Despite his being found innocence, it took years for people within the community to treat him as though he was innocent. Legally he was innocent but experientially, he was guilty because that is how people treated him.
I believe this is how many people, including Jane, feel. They can learn all the theology there is to know about redemption and hope and hear over and over how they have legally been forgiven and justified by God but experientially they still feel guilty. This is due in large part to the way the world continues to judge people for their past.
I believe Jesus understood the existing dichotomy between legal/forensic and experiential redemption and hope. In Luke 7.36-50 we have the story of a sinful woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with oil. In the story, this woman is weeping. She knows she has a past life full of sinful behavior. The long hair indicates that her sinful past most likely involved sexual immorality, which we all know brings much scorn and shame upon a person. The way in which Simon, the Pharisee, and the other Pharisees treat her can only be a sampling of the ridicule and judgment she experienced on a day to day basis. In this story Jesus does offer her legal forgiveness (v. 48), which is important and necessary for true redemption and hope. But we would miss a big lesson if we only see the forensic justification offered in this story. The story also involves Jesus allowing this woman to approach him without rejection, ridicule, or judgment. Additionally, when Simon begin to criticize Jesus (which would have brought humiliation upon this woman for being the sinful subject of Simon’s response), Jesus defends this woman and by doing so, also shows Simon his own errors.
What this sinful woman received from Jesus went beyond the legal status of being pardoned from sin. She experienced the fellowship of God again through this man named Jesus of Nazareth. This was an experiential reception of redemption and hope. Rather than being judged by her past sins, Jesus saw her through the image she was made in and the image God was redeeming her too. This allowed her to tangibly experience the redemption and hope that God has been bringing about throughout history.
So back to Jane… Yes Jane needs to find legal redemption and hope from God. But Jane also needs to experience that redemption and hope. For this to happen Jane needs a community of God’s people who will not judge her for her past but see her through the image she was created in and the baptism which God desires to give her.* This means she must find grace and acceptance from the church. She must be welcomed as though she is part of the community. She must know that she is wanted in the church for no other reason than the fact that she is loved like everyone else just as God loves us all. Then she will experience redemption and hope. Redemption: she will experience what it is like to not be identified by your past and subsequently, she will learn to let go of the guilt and shame of the past. Hope: she will begin to experience the future in the present and begin to learn what that day will be like when Jesus returns and all the tears and pain of the present are wiped away.
God help us, the church, to show others the experience of redemption and hope!
* The idea of viewing people through these two images comes from Eugene Peterson. See Marva J Dawn and Eugene H. Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 191.