I had a conversation with a murderer once, which, being the tactless conversationalist that I am, eventually turned to religion. I was astounded when the man told me that he didn’t think God would forgive his particular sin.
Having grown up in the heated sanctuaries of the fire and brimstone South, I was certain of one thing: Our Lord didn’t die for the effete, white-glove sins of the law office or ledger book. No, it was for just this sort of manly, bodily — even violent — sin, of which this man was claiming guilt, that our Savior suffered.
And when he asked me if I knew the unforgivable sin, I assured him that I had no earthly idea. “But I can tell you this,” I said. “It isn’t the one you’ve committed.”
I went on to tell him about the thief on the cross, who that very day was with our Lord in Paradise. Then of St. Paul, who, as Saul of Tarsus, likely killed more people than Ted Bundy, of King David who took a poor infantryman’s wife and then sent the man to the front lines to be killed, and of Samson, Moses, and all the others I could think of. “Why, a fellow might as soon send himself to Hell by becoming an actuary as an ax murderer,” I said, adding that this fact was just one of many of the great ironies and impossibilities of our Creator.
“I see what you’re saying,” he told me. “But what I’ve done is too terrible. I see it in my dreams at night. There’s no way God could forgive that.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. He was simply inconvincible.
But I think there is something to be gleaned from it, especially during our current time of Lenten reflection. And I find myself asking: “How much reflection on personal sin is too much? At what point has reflecting turned into the macabre and unhealthy act of self-damnation?”
Clearly such is possible, as demonstrated by my friend above. And this conversation was not the only time when people have told me squarely that their sins are too great, that they simply don’t believe God has any desire or willingness — or possibly even ability — to forgive them.
But this is not the kind of reflection to which we’re called during Lent. We should look at our sins, sure, but these contemplations must be tempered with the ultimate arc of the Christian narrative, which is positive and triumphant. In fact, the Christian life itself, forward-looking as it is, is almost diametrically opposed to the kind of inward observance called for during Lent.
St. Paul tells us we are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” G. K. Chesterton elaborates on this thought in “Orthodoxy,” contrasting Christianity with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, systems where looking inward is the order of the day. “The Christian saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world,” he writes, “he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment.”
Thus, unlike pantheism, which searches for truth in the inward man, Christianity looks outward … to the Perfect Man.
I wish I could’ve helped my friend see this. To understand that the only real unforgivable sin with which we ought to concern ourselves, the only one that ultimately damns us, is the one of rejecting the Gospel itself. To think that we, and the pasts we carry, are just too BIG, and that God is too small.
In Genesis 19 we are given a tragic glimpse into what can happen when believers spend too much time focusing on sin. “Escape for your life,” Lot and his family are commanded. “Do not look back or stop…. But Lot's wife…looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”
A harrowing story, indeed, but one we would do well to consider. Looking on sin for a season is healthy; for a lifetime, deadly.
Thus, during the remainder of Lent, let us look inward only to recognize our need for a Redeemer, but without looking back and dwelling on ourselves and our shortcomings for too long. It would be tragic to do otherwise.
Along with his father, Allen Keller runs a lumber business in Stevenson, Alabama. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MBA from University of Virginia. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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