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.

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“Work Spouses” and Spiritual Fidelity (Jeremiah 2)

Have you ever heard of a “work spouse?”  It’s someone of the opposite sex with whom you develop a close connection in the workplace.  It might start because of a mutual project, or even an unspoken alliance against a common adversary.  You become close.  You become connected.  Soon you find you’re sharing things with this person you usually only share with your husband or your wife.

It’s called an “emotional affair.”  It’s easy to think of this affair as less damaging—as long as it doesn’t “lead to other things.”  But many are starting to see the real damage that these types of relationships can bring.  A writer for The Huffington Post suggests that emotional affairs can be just as damaging as sexual affairs—if not moreso.  She relates a story from her husband:

“When my husband was in his first marriage, his wife would stay up late into the night talking to her best friend’s boyfriend on the phone. He would wake up and hear his wife laughing and talking about things she’d never shared with him before. He longed to share this kind of connection with her, but it wasn’t there… and it never would be, as long as she was confiding in another man. My husband told me that he was more hurt by his ex-wife’s emotional infidelity than if she’d had sex with this other man.” (Lisa Shield, “Emotional Infidelity: Worse than a Sexual Affair?” Appearing on The Huffington Post, September 28, 2013.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/28/emotional-infidelity_n_3977058.html)

We are created for relationship.  Nothing cuts us more deeply than betrayal.  In our selfishness, we pursue things that promise happiness but deliver disaster.  And we do the same thing to God.  Think of the idols in your life.  What do you spend your money on?  What do you daydream about?  What stirs your emotions the most readily?  Chances are there are things in your life—and mine—that promise us joy, comfort, and security.  They become our “work spouse;” rather than trust in God we trust in these idols.

And like a wounded lover, God responds with an unquenchable grief.

THE WEEPING PROPHET

It seems fitting, then, that Jeremiah would be called “the weeping prophet.”  He was something of a folk singer—a “Bob Dylan” for his generation.  He faced opposition from the “establishment” of the royal authorities, and he wrote a message of brokenness and betrayal.  His ministry began in 627 B.C., but it would span into the year 586 B.C., where he would witness the crumbling of the city of Jerusalem when the nation went into exile.

THE BETRAYAL

The first and largest section of the book of Jeremiah contains God’s judgments against the nation of Israel, primarily because of their unfaithfulness.  As with other prophets—most famously Hosea—God describes His relationship to His people as one between husband and wife:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying,  2 “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.  3 Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.”  (Jeremiah 2:1-3)

Therefore Israel’s unfaithfulness is described as an act of infidelity:

4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel.  5 Thus says the LORD: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?  6 They did not say, ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’  7 And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.  8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.  (Jeremiah 2:4-8)

Do you hear the emotion in God’s voice?  “What wrong did your father find in me?”  In Jeremiah, the same God who made mountains quake and causes the seas to roar lowers His head and weeps with the pain of betrayal.

To love someone is to give a part of yourself away.  No one becomes “one flesh” with their spouse without giving them a piece of yourself, and to lose that love is to lose that piece forever.  Ask anyone who’s been through the pain of divorce and adultery.  One of the questions that hangs heavy in their conscience is the very one that God asks: What did I do wrong?  What more could I have given you? 

The obvious answer—at least in God’s case—is: “nothing.”  By this point, God had shown His people hundreds of years of faithfulness, the most notable is His rescuing them from Egyptian slavery.  Why would they run back to the nation that He saved them from?

The painful truth is this: what you embrace you become.  The people “went after worthlessness and became worthless” (v. 4).  Pursue idolatry and you become an idolater.  Pursue adultery and you become and adulterer.  Pursue self and you become selfish.  Worship anything other than God, and your soul will collapse.  So why pursue it?

FALSE PROMISES

Idols—much like our “work spouses”—serve a function.  Think about it.  What are some reasons a person might turn to a “work spouse?”  Is there something wrong with their real spouse?  Maybe they feel distant.  Disappointed.  Unappreciated.  Undesired.  Suddenly the “work spouse” finds new, subtle allure—and before you know it things spiral out of control.

So if I feel distant from God, if I feel disappointed or disenchanted—then I find it easier to medicate my hurts through the idols that surround me.  Money.  Sex.  Power.  Surely these are more immediately satisfying than any of God’s promises—but will their promises sustain me?

Through Jeremiah, God speaks of this shocking exchange:

20 “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds; but you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yes, on every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore.  21 Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?  22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord GOD.  23 How can you say, ‘I am not unclean, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done– a restless young camel running here and there,  24 a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust? None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her.  25 Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst. But you said, ‘It is hopeless, for I have loved foreigners, and after them I will go.’

26 “As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed: they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets,  27 who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ For they have turned their back to me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they say, ‘Arise and save us!’  28 But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you, in your time of trouble; for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah.

One of my own professors summarizes Israel’s choices this way:

“The people had long ago rejected the Lord’s authority over them and prostituted themselves to other gods, especially the Canaanite fertility [god] Baal (v. 20).  There were like a grapevine that yielded wild, bitter fruit, even though it came from high-quality domesticated stock (v. 21).  Their guilt was obvious, like a stain on a garment that even soap cannot remove (v. 22).  In her wild pursuit of Baal, the nation had acted like the typical young female camel that exhibits total lack of discipline (v. 23) or the typical female donkey in heat that frantically seeks a mate (v. 24).  Searching for her false gods, the idol-obsessed nation ran, as it were, until her sandals were worn out and her throat was dry (v. 25).  Israel’s idolatry ultimately proved futile and humiliating, especially to the leaders of the community (v. 26).”  (Robert B. Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, p. 157)

We’ve all been there.  We’ve all done this.  We’ve all found our “work spouses,” things that satisfy us more readily than the relationship God seeks to build with us.  Thankfully, there is good news.

THE GOSPEL

If you remember reading the gospel of John, then you also remember the setting of Jesus’ first public “sign” about Himself.  It was at a wedding—turning water to wine, showing that in His kingdom the best is yet to come.  I can’t help but think that this was in some way connected to the fact that in Christ, we each have the future promise of sharing in a far greater wedding feast known as the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6).

To love someone is to give a part of yourself away.  On the cross, Jesus gave everything.  Though our attitude toward God is one of repeated betrayal, His attitude toward us is one of unfathomable mercy.  God is profoundly wounded by your sin—and mine.  But in His love we have the opportunity to change our attitudes, and once again tune our hearts to sing His grace.