“No,” said my friend.  “I appreciate the invitation.  I used to enjoy church a lot.  But that was so many years ago, and I really don’t feel like I belong there any more.”

Ayers face

Conversations about believing

“When someone has been away from church for some time,” I said, “it can make their first time back feel a little awkward.  The rest of us might be a little clumsy while we’re figuring out how to welcome you.  But that’s what we would want to do, because of our sense that you do belong, that you’re a long-lost cousin and we’re glad to have you back with us as part of the family reunion.”

“I wish I could,” she said.  “But church is more than a gathering of friends and family.  It’s about God, after all.  And my relationship with God isn’t too good, and I don’t think I’d be able to pretend it is.”

“No need to pretend,” I said.  “We’re all just pilgrims, wanting to follow the path that Jesus sets before us, and often not doing such a good job of it.  So it sounds like you would fit right in with the rest of us.”

“But you know that the path that Jesus sets before you is good,” she said.  “Even if you don’t see it very well, even if you stumble along the way, you know it’s good.  But what God has in mind for me is not good at all.”

“Why would you think that?”

She hesitated for a long moment.  I waited.  

Then she said, “Because God is angry at me.”

I felt my eyebrows raise.  “Maybe disappointed, sometimes.  But not angry.”

“No, you’re wrong,” she said.  “You don’t know who I really am.  You don’t know the things I’ve done.  And even if I could pretend, to you and to the church, that I’m really a good person, God knows how sinful I really am.”

“God knows how sinful all of us really are,” I said.  “But he also knows that he loves us, and that he’s not going to give up on us so easily.  That’s why Psalm 130 says, ‘If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins – O God, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, and therefore we revere you.’  God could condemn us all, but instead he offers us forgiveness and ever so many second chances.”

“But not all of us can be forgiven,” she said.

“Is that right?  I would have thought that the grace of God Almighty would indeed be big enough to forgive every single one of us.”

“Except that not all of us deserve to be forgiven.”

“The thing about grace is this:  God forgives us even though we don’t deserve it.  The Bible tells us that’s how God deals with all of us undeserving sinners.  ‘God shows his love for us in this very way:  although we were sinners, Christ died for us.’  The whole story of the gospel is that God has chosen to love us, even though we don’t deserve it.”

“But it also talks about people in hell,” she said.  “It talks about the wrath of God.  I know why those passages are there.  I know who they’re talking about.  They’re talking about me.”

“Now why would we suppose,” I asked, “that when the Bible talks about condemnation, it’s about you, and when it talks about forgiveness, it’s about the rest of us?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I just know that God is angry at me for the things I’ve done.  Unforgivable things.  That’s why I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

“And yet:  suppose that even though you don’t deserve it, God decides to forgive you anyway?”

“He can’t.”

“It’s always intriguing, when someone proposes that there’s something that God Almighty can’t do.  I can see that you feel quite sure that you’ll be condemned:  but what if God is more sure that he’ll forgive you?  You’re stubborn about the extent of your guilt, but what if God is more stubborn about the extent of his grace?”

She shrugged.  “You make it sound pretty, but all I know is, there’s no way he can forgive me.”

“Hmmph,” I said.  “In the history of the world, there have been any number of truly vile sinners, and the grace of God has been deep enough and rich enough and full enough to forgive them all:  except for you.   This all-powerful God, with all-powerful love and all-powerful grace, somehow fails to be all-powerful enough to forgive one particular sinner, namely you?”

“You just don’t understand,” she said.  “I don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

“That hasn’t stopped God in anyone else’s case,” I said.  “He’s actually very good at loving and forgiving undeserving people who have done unforgivable things.  I see no reason to think he would have any special problem with you.”

“Then why do I feel so guilty?”

“Probably because you’ve been so convinced for so long that God would never forgive you.  It’s hard to ask for forgiveness when you are so sure that it’s not possible.  But God has loved you for a long time, guilt and all:  and he’s ready to set everything right, as soon as you ask him.”

Jay Ayers is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Louisiana and the First Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green.

Send questions and comments to athorp@pikecountynews.com.

Recommended for you