Paying the Debt

Do we need forgiveness?

By now, we’ve already established the sheer magnitude of the problem of sin—both Biblically and psychologically. The question we might be faced with is why we can’t simply overlook it. Move past it. Get over it. After all, if even the Bible emphasizes that we’re all sinners, can’t we just accept this truth and move on?

Thing is, there are some things in life we just can’t move past—nor should we, really. A friend of mine told me the story of why he and his fiancée ended things. He’d been away on business—the ministry, actually—and didn’t see her for a few months. When he returned, he discovered that she’d moved into the apartment of another man. Their relationship was over. He was devastated.

More significantly, though, he was left with something psychologists occasionally call “emotional debt.” He still loved her. The relationship had ended with the abruptness of a car wreck, but the sheer momentum of his love was propelling his heart forward even now, scraped raw against the tarmac. But his fiancée, well…she had already moved on. She wasn’t hurting—at least not as bad as he was. So all—all—of the hurt, all of the betrayal, all of the sudden raw loneliness lay on his shoulders to carry. This was a tremendous debt.

What do we usually do when we experience this? We try and manage that debt by spreading it around. We talk badly about that person. We “warn” others about them—though this is usually just a form of gossip. We let ourselves stew and fester over the past. We fantasize about their downfall—or, alternately, we fantasize about surpassing that person’s success, and inciting their jealousy.

So what happens if we don’t do those things? Then that emotional debt is ours and ours alone to carry.

And that hurts.

Now what if we were the ones who did the offending? And what if the person we offended was not just another sinner like us, but the infinitely good and righteous character of God himself? I’m cautious not to start applying terms like “emotional debt” to an infinite God (as if we God fits into our psychological categories), though there are plenty of places in Scripture when God’s grief comes welling up like a rejected lover thumbing through a tear-stained wedding album.

“I have fond memories of you…how devoted you were to me in your early years.  I remember how you loved me like a new bride; you followed me through the wilderness, through a land that had never been planted.  What fault could your ancestors have possibly found in me that they strayed so far from me?” (Jeremiah 2:2-5, NET)

If there is to be true justice, if there is to be a sense of wrongs being put right, then this debt must be paid.

The Bible describes this in the language of something called “atonement.” Atonement is the finished work of a blood sacrifice. What does it mean to “atone?” Eugene Merrill of Dallas Seminary does a wonderful job of helping us examine the deeply-storied meaning of the Hebrew word kaphar. Merrill says that if we dig through the related words in Akkadian and other ancient languages (similar to how we might look at Latin roots of English words in the dictionary), we find a lot of language that emphasizes not merely covering over sin, but blotting it out entirely. Wiping it clean.

We find this meaning in an unlikely place—the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32. Though used as part of God’s larger, spectacular plan to fulfill his promise to Abraham and establish his people, Jacob got his start as something of a con man. After cheating his brother out of the family inheritance, he went on the run. Now, he was about to be reunited with Esau, and that was a scary prospect. So he sent a whole series of material gifts ahead of him. Ever the shrewd manipulator, he was trying to “buy off” his brother with material gifts. Here’s what the text of the story says was going through his mind:

For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Genesis 32:21)

If you were to read that in the Hebrew, you might notice that the text reads something like “I will atone him” or—if we paraphrase—“I may wipe his face clean [of anger].” Atonement, we see, is deeply relational.

God established an elaborate system of sacrifices used to shape his people’s relationship with him—particularly in the area of the cleansing of sin. The writer of the letter of Hebrews says:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)

Naturally, we hear the echoes of the Old Testament law, here:

11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Leviticus 17:11

Blood would be the means by which God’s people made atonement for their sins.

Now, if you’ve been in church for a while, you might know that each of the sacrifices meant something very specific. But, as Leon Morris points out in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, if we fast-forward to Jesus’ day, the first-century Jews had blurred the system so that every sacrifice made was thought to remove sin.

Such language must seem shockingly barbaric in the walls of today’s sanitized sanctuaries. Why would animal sacrifice be such a major part of worship for such a long period of human history?

Because it’s gross.

See, I have this theory. You know those awful videos they show you in Driver’s Ed? The ones where they show the bloody aftermath of drinking or texting while driving? They’re almost cliché, really. We’re numb to it. But what if we showed cars running over animals. Dogs. Cats. Pets. That sort of thing. The cuter and fluffier the better. We can watch teens text and drive, then watch puppy guts get splattered along the roadside. I guarantee you this would be infinitely more effective than the footage they show now.

If that horrifies you, that’s the point. Sin is as offensive before a holy God is as blood is before a people who treasure their animals. Granted, a sacrificial lamb would probably not have tugged at the heartstrings as much as a family pet, but the unblemished, male lamb would have been quite valuable to the family. And now the worshippers would watch it bleed to death. It’s as if God is trying to remind us, This is your sin. This is your filth. This is your shame. This is the price of atonement.

As before, we need to let this sink in. We need to let this haunt our imaginations and turn our stomachs. We need to be horrified by a God that is so ferociously holy that he demands blood from the people that have incurred such an impossibly massive debt.  Hear the cries of the lamb. See its blood flow in crimson streaks. And let your own tears flow at the knowledge of God’s plan to remove the debt, to cleanse the stain—to bring healing, to bring relationship.

5 thoughts on “Paying the Debt

  1. Chris, I was astonished as some of your arguments … not the theological ones … but just the general feeling that we get more grossed out seeing a dead puppy than a dead human. That seeing an animal die would somehow create more horror in us than even a dead human it is very weird concept.

    After I started preparing to write what I am “thinking,” I realized that you are right.

    In today’s culture, although most of us eat meat, we are far, far removed from the butchering process. Our ancestors were more closely connected to farms and animals and would have been much more acquainted with butchering animals.

    So our ancestors would have little shock in seeing dying animals. We on the other hand don’t see dying animals that often.

    But when it comes to humans dying our ancestors did not spend much time watching dead humans. Not so us. I got home from work and watched about the last ten or twenty minutes of a movie that my wife got from the library. It wasn’t bad as far as movies go … a bit of the end of WorldWar II and the narrator was “death.” A bomb fell on a german village and the camera showed a girl escaping from the bomb rubble to come across several bodies of those who she lived with. I’m not so much trying to describe the movie, as I trying to give an example of how ubiquitous human death is on TV and in the movies. Action movies, detective movies, dateline type “who done it” documentaries, NCISs, Law and Orders, History channel type of stuff … we see lot’s of portrayals of dead humans.

    My point then (to come around to agree with you) is that we see dead people almost every day on television. We might see war casualties on TV, ISIS executions etc. What we don’t see ironically is dead animals. Movies today have to be very careful to assert that “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie.”

    How strange it is that movie makers very rarely show dead animals, but to see scores of dead humans portrayed in the movies is actually very normal.

    Strange times in which we live. Also, strange that I thought your arguments were strange until I prepared to debate them. That makes me strange I guess, for me to be so out of step with today’s culture to think you were “off” when it was really I who was “off” … in my original analysis.

    • The thought first struck me last summer when everyone was expressing outrage over the (admittedly senseless) killing of Cecil the Lion. We actually see this in movies quite a bit. I was watching the movie Independence Day not long ago–the cheesy sci-fi movie where aliens invade earth. In one scene, the aliens attack a major city. Two main characters are trying to narrowly escape the fireball rapidly engulfing the city. They find shelter, but the family dog is still in harms way. The camera focuses on whether the dog will make it to shelter before the fireball reaches him. So on screen, we see buildings shattering, cars flipping, people dying–but we, the audience, are meant to focus on that dog. Now, I’d tell you this has a lot to do with the fact that humans–as bearers of God’s image–are meant to care for God’s created world including its creatures. But there’s a twistedness when our care for creatures outweighs our care for other image-bearing humans–or even the character of God himself, which of course was my larger point.

      Thanks for reflecting and commenting, my friend.

  2. Why I am making a second comment today? I was writing something else and it brought to mind a concept that we in the church need to deal with. In our battles against sin do we think individually only or also collectively? Do we pray, “lead US not into temptation, but deliver US from evil?” Or do we pray “lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil?” I’m not trying to get too deeply into whether the prayer was intended to be offered singularly or collectively.

    Some sacrifices in the Old Testament were “fellowship” offerings. I’m trying to consider how there is a collective element in this. In the United States we may tend to think more individualistically then others in around the world think.

    We have responsibility to pray for one another. We are even told to literally call one another near each day and even more as we see the day approaching. We have responsibility to strengthen each other spiritually or help others in whatever way we can. “Do good to everyone as we have opportunity, especially to those in the family of God.”

    Just thought I would bring that angle up since we so often fail to think about each other in our self-centered society.

    • Yes! This is an excellent point. Ancient societies were nowhere near as individualistic as we’ve become. The ancient world was keen on describing themselves through the lens of “collective guilt,” which we might call “guilty by association.” If you lived in an immoral society, you were tainted. We might look at that and say “That’s unfair!” But that only belies our own cultural bias.

      The closest example I can give to this happening in America is the fallout from the Sandusky scandal at Penn State a few years back. Suddenly the chant “We are Penn State!” took on new meaning. Now they all felt the shame of being associated with those heinous acts. A friend of mine is a campus minister there, and he reported that many students were alternately crying and openly angry.

      I think this helps us read some of the Bible’s more obscure stories in a whole new way. A good example is the story of Sodom and Gamorrah. The shame of the society was enough to incur God’s wrath. Abraham’s petition that God might spare the city was culturally subversive–if one immoral person spoils the many, could a few righteous spare the many? And of course in the progress of revelation this is exactly what happened–that though God would judge the world based on the sin of Adam, he would also spare the world through the righteousness of the Second Adam (Christ).

      • I think of a horrible incident in the history of the Israelites in Judges chapters 19-21 where a bad crime was committed and the Benjamites would not hand over those responsible for the crime, preferring instead to go to war. I suppose anger got out of hand and reason got lost in the mix.

        Another weird incident in the Bible was when David returned after fleeing from Absalom’s rebellion. Different tribes of Israel had a severe falling out over the diplomatic niceties of how David should have returned. Harsh words flew between the tribes and David had to send an army to put down a rebel who took advantage of the high tensions and led a rebellion against David. Fortunately a wise woman saved a city from destruction through her direct communications with Joab in that incident.

        In the case of the Benjamites in Judges, they were almost totally destroyed for the wickedness of some men there because they did not agree to have wicked men punished. In the case of the besieged city of Abel, a woman saved the city from destruction.

        The Benjamites were so collectively orientated that they were almost wiped out.

        Maybe in our society we have the illusion that we are freer than we indeed are. Scripture says that some things are perfectly acceptable in the sight of man but are detestable in God’s eyes. Jesus confronted people over the love of money, for example. The Pharisees were even sneering at Jesus when he taught that we could not serve God and money.

        One thing I really like about the Bible, is that it effectively casts light on some elements of our modern society that w moderns hold so dear to – and sometimes these things too are sinful or detestable in God’s eyes.

        Some Christians when it comes to homosexuality exploit this issue as a political rallying point. We know what the Bible teaches, and yet as Jude says, sometimes the things we understand by instinct are the very things that destroy us. Do Christians respond with compassion or hate and fear? You’ve talked and blogged about this in the past effectively and accurately.

        Scripture says in Ezekiel 16:49-50 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
        They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
        How many Christians think of this when they think of the reason that God destroyed Sodom?

        Now the church can hold an uncompromising position with the sin of homosexuality. With the right mix of compassion and that is fine, but we miss the larger issues plaguing society. Divorce is rampant in the church. It doesn’t get addressed a whole lot. So we can address sin, but if we do so without the love of God, – it profits us nothing.

        I’m not saying divorce should get addressed more … although that is probably or certainly an indication that I am wimpy and don’t address tough topics … I do think divorce should be addressed much more often than the position on homosexuality. I’m not arguing to address divorce to berate people but when we talk in the church about the “sancity of marriage” the real problem is the general acid in society that eats away at marriage. When politicians talk about the sanctity of marriage they are talking about how to label legal rights of homosexuals.

        The reason this is a huge societal issue (the current debate) is because Christians are not doing too well in the debate and those that think of religion as antiquated are like sharks sniffing blood in the water and they go on the attack. Or maybe the news media brings up the issue because it guarantees a huge rating.

        In any case we need to respond in love and respect all involved. We are in grave danger in the United States (because it is part of our culture) of becoming “arrogant” / “overfed” / “unconcerned” / and not helping the poor and needy.

        We in this country have lapsed into collective sin when it comes to our national finances. We have stolen at least $20,000,000,000,000 from the next generation. On top of that we add additional “unfunded liabilities” onto the next generation. I don’t understand the huge numbers being kicked around when it comes to “unfunded liabilities” and so I won’t try to explain it. How “unfunded liabilities” are calculated hasn’t been spelled out to me … but I think the amount of money is also mindboggling.

        Just being part of this country is enough to make me think “Lord have mercy on me – a sinner.”

        Micah wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic. 6:8 NIV)

        This is certainly a challenge for me. Even praying regularly and formally on my knees is a challenge.

        I feel my comment here is terrible. Terribly long-winded. Unfortunately I am left with the choice of ending this comment or spending more time on it. I’d prefer not to post this, but if I do so it will seem like I didn’t give what you wrote much thought.

        And so I’m going to post this out of friendship, though as it says in Ecclesiastes, “The more the words the less the meaning.” Ecclesiastes 6:11

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