Last week at the annual Here We Still Stand Conference, during a conversation with Matt Popovits, I unintentionally stepped into something I wasn’t quite ready to receive. The moment was caught on video, which you can watch above if you would like. While I was trying to get Matt’s thoughts on the psychological effects of the law in general, I used a specific example from my own life - mom guilt - which quickly led to my shaky voice and quiet tears. For reasons I can’t fully explain, all of the pressure, changes, anxiety, and depression I’ve experienced in the past eight months dumped over me at that moment. Both my admittance of guilt, followed by Matt’s pronunciation of absolution, caught me off guard. I wasn’t ready for either, and to be honest, I did not enjoy any minute of it.
For months, I’ve been wrestling with the new balance of motherhood and work. One of the reasons I started working in the theological realm and decided to go back to school to receive my masters in theology was because I was tired of seeing women in theology do nothing more than shed tears about motherhood. And yet here I was, doing precisely that, on camera. I was in front of God only knows how many people and in a situation, where at least momentarily, I had no control.
It’s so easy to slip into thinking about forgiveness solely in terms of our authority over it. When we offer it to people, we think it’s on our accord; when we receive it, we think it’s because we feel ready to be at peace with whoever or whatever has wronged us. In other words, we operate according to the assumption that forgiveness functions (successfully or not) based on our control, our emotion, or our ownership. But Christ doesn’t wait to give us his word of forgiveness until we are rationally, emotionally, or physically contrite, and sometimes he doesn’t even wait for us to recognize what this word is before he pronounces it on us.
Christ’s word of absolution may come before we are ready. We may even misconstrue these words into more law and more guilt. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in Christ, the declaration that we are forgiven and that we are made righteous is both good news and true.
Giving absolution and receiving it are just two sides of the same faith coin in which we trust God will continue to keep his promises.
At first, I didn’t hear Matt’s pronunciation of absolution as good news for me. But others did for themselves. That’s how powerful God’s promises are - once they are unleashed on the world, we have absolutely no control of how, when, or on whom the Spirit will use them. All that we are promised is that they will take effect. We see this in the conversion of the Syrophoenician woman whose faith, as theologian Jim Nestingen is fond of saying, came from the rumor of Christ. She believed before she even spoke to him! God’s word is so living and active that it goes to work in secondary and tertiary ways; in ways that surprise us and in ways we will never see.
Hearing that Matt’s word had impacted others, in turn, impacted me. I don’t want to claim that the multidimensionality of absolution is always this black and white. To do so would be to wrongly assert, again, that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is limited to our own experiences and our own authority. We cannot assume to know when or even for whom forgiveness will function - we are only commanded to faithfully hand God’s word over to others and also to believe his words when they are delivered to us. Giving absolution and receiving it are just two sides of the same faith coin in which we trust God will continue to keep his promises.
So, just as Matt did, we hand out forgiveness when we see someone in need of it. Sometimes this happens in response to a co-worker’s apology. Sometimes, it follows a friend’s confession that they’ve messed up their marriage. Sometimes it’s needed to comfort the conscience of a loved one stuck in the clutches of the law’s terror, and sometimes it is essential after a new mom unintentionally unloads her guilt.
When we hear the words of forgiveness in Christ in our own ears, whether they are intentionally said to us or to another, we must believe they are true and true for us.
God’s word has the power to forgive, to create faith, to comfort the guilt-laden and downtrodden. This much is certain.