Thursday, March 24, 2011

Devotional for the Sixteenth Day of Lent

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart! (Jeremiah 4:19a)

“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself . . .” (John 5:25-26)

I received news last night that I man I met many years ago—a former pastor—took his own life. It is a sad report, shocking and disillusioning for those who knew him. How is it that one who has lived his life in close relationship with God give up hope? What does God do when someone purposely ends his or her life?

Perhaps the real question is: What limits are there to God’s love and forgiveness? Is self-murder (which does not offer the opportunity for repentance prior to death) a final, desperate act that is unforgivable by God? Christians throughout the ages have offered numerous theological theories about suicide, some claiming it to be a final, unforgivable crime; others offer the possibility that God offers hope even to those who take this tragic, ultimate step (see the Roman Catholic Church’s official statement here).

Take, for example, Judas Iscariot. He tipped off the religious leaders so they could arrest Jesus. What did he think would happen? It is likely he wanted them to press Jesus to ramp up what Judas assumed was an agenda of revolution. Judas didn’t know until later that he had sold Jesus into death. When he discovered that, he tried to undo his work, giving back the money and confessing to the leaders. They scoffed at him and told him to take care of things himself.

How was Judas to do that? He operated in a religious culture that had certain ritual requirements regarding confession and forgiveness. When your own religious leaders abandon you to your sin, what choices are left? Judas took the only path that made sense to him. He saw himself as beyond redemption. With the psalmist, he would have cried out, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!”

Jesus claimed that God the Father had granted him the very life of God, a life that the Son could freely dispense. In Jesus, we see the character and heart of God expressed in living, human, flesh. So deeply did Jesus identify with the tragic nature of human existence that, even in the throes of death, he could cry out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). When a person commits suicide, as in so many of the tragic areas of human life, they do not know what they are really doing. They believe they are submitting to the power of hopelessness, that hopelessness has the last word for them, and they are wrong. On the other side of this life, they will encounter the author of hope. How many on that side will hear the voice of the Son of God, and live?

We should consider the boundaries and limits that we think we can impose on God’s love and forgiveness. The story of our Scriptures should inform us of the many attempts of the religious community to do that, only to find that God turns their certainties upside down with his generosity. While we can always refuse God’s love and demand a life without him—on either side of death—our theological theories that limit God do not have the power we try to grant to them.

In the life we will ultimately share in God’s new creation—a life beyond this one—it wouldn’t surprise me to bump into Judas along the way. I imagine him sitting by himself, maybe under a tree, staring off into space and saying to himself over and over again:

“Can it really be? Is it really true? I never really knew . . .”

It might take him a few thousand years to come to grips with the unimaginable generosity of God. And he will probably share that space with a lot of other people.

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