By Martin Elfert
Do you have a question about life, love, or faith? Submit it online, fill out the form below or email it to email@example.com.
Does God get mad when you sin?
What God does when you sin is to forgive you. There are mystics who go even further than that: these women and men say that God forgives you before you sin.
If either of those scenarios are right — if God’s love, to borrow Ellen Clark-King’s glorious and provocative turn of phrase, is so promiscuous that God doesn’t know how not to forgive— then why do we bother talking about sin and forgiveness at all? Indeed, given how much guilt and shame the very notion of sin has helped to heap on humanity over the years, why don’t we just do away with the notion of sin? Wouldn’t it be freeing just to be rid of it altogether?
For the second consecutive column, I’m going to draw on the work of Kent Hoffman. Hoffman works closely with homeless teens. And he works similarly closely with privileged college students. Hoffman asks the young people in the former category to write down the thoughts about themselves that they wish weren’t running through their heads. The thoughts that these homeless teens share go something like this: “I’m not good for anything,” “No one will ever trust me,” “No one could ever forgive me,” “No one could ever love me.” Hoffman asks the privileged college students to do the same exercise. And their responses go something like this: “I’m not good for anything,” “No one will ever trust me,” “No one could ever forgive me,” “No one could ever love me.”
What Hoffman has discovered, in other words, is that our secret fear that we are broken and unlovable and unforgivable is not a product of poverty or misfortune. Rather, it is a product of being human.
And that makes me wonder, Ernest: what if? What if the idea of sin isn’t about God being mad at us, about God being disappointed in us? What if, instead, the idea of sin is a way of giving name to our disappointment in ourselves: our disappointment in the ways that we have hurt our neighbors; our disappointment in the ways that we have not lived up to our hopes; our disappointment in all of the things that we have done and left undone?
What if the idea of sin exists in order to open us up to forgiveness? What if it exists in order to remind us that, no matter how unforgivable we may believe ourselves to be, God doesn’t agree with us?
Forgiveness — and I heard this definition for the first time just recently — is about giving up the hope of a better or a different past. Forgiveness is about escaping our deep and frequently unspoken fear that God and everyone else is mad at us. Forgiveness, to use some old school language, is about sin no longer having dominion over us. Forgiveness is about being free.
Here’s the good news, Ernest. God invites you to participate in forgiveness. God invites you, as the Lord’s Prayer has it, both to accept forgiveness and to forgive others. God invites you — you of all people — to live with the joy and agency and compassion and wonder that flows out of knowing that you are forgiven.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.