Incarnations of God's Mercy

Two weeks ago I wrote about how we make the love of God credible and believable to others when we stand in front of each other and say "I love you." It's hard to believe in the love of God unless human beings stand before us as signs, representatives, sacraments and ambassadors of God's love.

When you say "I love you" to others you make the love of God credible and believable.

Something similar happens when it comes to God's mercy, grace and forgiveness. It's hard to experience the mercy of God. It's hard to feel forgiven. And the church doesn't help much with this. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together in the church "we are not allowed to be sinners":
For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.
This experience of hiding and shame is a tragedy given the grace and mercy of God. As Bonhoeffer describes, under the merciful gaze of God you are allowed to be a sinner:
However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you – a sacrifice, a good deed – but rather desiring you alone. God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner...
And yet, God's mercy remains unbelievable to us. We don't trust it. It seems too incredible. And so we continue to hide in shame and fear.

This is why the sacrament of confession is so important. In being embraced as a sinner by another human being the mercy and forgiveness of God becomes credible. In confession we become sacraments of God's grace for each other and that makes the grace of God more believable. God's forgiveness becomes credible when we forgive each other. Bonhoeffer:
Now each stands in Christ’s place. In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend. In another Christian’s presence I am permitted to be the sinner that I am, for there alone in all the world the truth and mercy of Jesus Christ rule. Christ became our brother in order in order to help us; through Christ other Christians have become Christ for us in the power and authority of Christ’s commandment. Other Christians stand before us as a sign of God’s truth and grace. They have been given to us to help us. Another Christian hears our confession of sin in Christ's place, and forgives our sins in Christ's name. Another Christian keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to another believer to confess, I am going to God...
We are to become signs of God's mercy for each other. Me for you and you for me. Each of us an incarnation of God's grace and love.

I'm reminded of the exhortation from 1 Peter:
1 Peter 4.8-11
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. 

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11 thoughts on “Incarnations of God's Mercy”

  1. This is why I believe The Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Book of Common Prayer to be so helpful and important. I realize that most members of fundamentalist and conservative Protestant churches scoff at the idea of reading prayers and confessions from a book; but, if hymns from a book can be sung from the heart, so can prayers.

    My point is that a prepared confession, like the one mentioned, can be very helpful when needing to release a burden, but unable to find the words. I know an Episcopal Priest who, in his private counselings with people, will suggest The Reconciliation when he senses a guilt and burden on the individual's soul; and he does it well. His suggestion is usually stated in a very gentle way, "Let's read this together. If you wish to mention specific sins, please feel free to do so; but it's not necessary. Let's Simply lift up this reading to God". It works.

  2. I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but this illustrates so well Paul's proclamation that "Christ in us is the Hope of Glory. Glory being the manifestation of God. I'm not sure how much I have to do with it though.

  3. I agree. In most evangelical churches there is nothing to turn to to handle the process of confession, corporately or interpersonally.

  4. I would like to point out the paradoxical nature of Sin in contrast to its more prevalent notion held by modern Christianity- especially its Evangelical form.

    Read 1st John chapter 1, where he addresses his flock who are suffering. What are they suffering? That having entered into the light, they witness themselves act in dark ways: they experience the pain of contradiction so poignantly when they ask: "how can a person in the light still accomplish darkness?" "We must not be in the light" is their conclusion.

    John's response? Basically he points out that people in darkness never think to distinguish between "the light" and "the dark"; the fact that you are distinguishing, proves you're in the light.

    His solution is based on the common experience of walking: "Even the most able of us have walked along a groomed trail and stumbled. We don't just lie there, we get up and continue walking"; in like manner when we sin, we confess them knowing that god is there eager with his forgiveness.....

    I wonder if the piety approach to sin is a means of controlled heroism. This paradoxical nature- sin can't exist until a human person shows up; and a human person can't be fully human until "sin" shows up- (people in darkness lack awareness of it) fits the biblical witness of sin better than the common approach of piety.

    Ironically, piety, is what is feeling like darkness to me, as it shrinks the life of being human into a cowering regimen of of small duties.

  5. Can you reference page numbers for your quotes (I mean for all your posts, not just this one)? You always pick important quotes and I'd like to be able to reference them in context. Just a small favor the academic in me is asking. :-)

    I love the idea of physical presence as a sacrament and incarnation of the love, grace, etc. of God. I think this takes incarnational theology to is proper culmination - image bearers as the hands and feet of the love and work of God in the world.

  6. Why did you cut the quote off at "You are allowed to be a sinner..."? Do you feel like the next line--"God loves the sinner but hates the sin."--has been misconstrued to mean something that Bonhoeffer didn't?

  7. Someday,
    When I'm brave,
    I'll be a sinner in the public eye.
    The forgiven don't ask why.
    They know too well under light,
    How sinner is a human right.
    They sacrifice their sacrifices,
    To live each day without disguises.
    A revolution against calamity,
    Human life with humanity.
    I've never met a brighter star,
    Than a sinner received as they are.

    -Mike Jackson :)

  8. One of my problems with the Catholic Church, and my ongoing struggle to figure out what a "practicing" Catholic means, is the notion that one must confess sins to a priest, and that only the priest has the "power" to forgive. Rarely, if ever, have I experienced that insight (and relief) of baring my soul in a confessional the way that it can happen in casual conversation with a friend. ("It's ok, I'm that way too!") By standing in line on Saturday afternoon to secretly tell an ordained priest about my hidden agendas, I feel that I'm falling, yet again, into a Church trap, and I end up wondering if that, too, is not one of my many ways of avoiding looking at my utter shame at who and what I am. For now, I'm sticking with the more simple un-masking with my friends.

  9. So my experience was a little different. Raised in a non-denominational charismatic church, including attending the school, we were constantly reminded of the sinners we were. Altar calls at the end of services were always packed and tearful and we confessed our total depravity (as middle and high-schoolers mind you), at least this is the game we learned to play. It all became very unreal. You knew when the call came you were either to go to the altar and weep uncontrollably, or you were to stand behind them with a hand in the air 'lifting them up in prayer' It becomes formal and rote. To the point where people would be standing up 'lifting someone up' in prayer while they discussed their plans for the evening. The tragedy is I learned years later that there were people who really had things in their life which needed support but we never knew because you can't tell the genuine from the contrived. So people who really needed love and support were left alone.

  10. Roy, I don't know why Richard chose to cut the quote where he did. But I would say the line you quote above has been terribly misconstrued to mean something that Bonhoeffer didn't. A good place to see what he means would be on pages 169-175, especially page 171 of volume 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works, Discipleship. It includes the following: "When we judge, we encounter other people from the distance of observation and reflection. But love does not allot time and space to do that. For those who love, other people can never become an object for spectators to observe. Instead they are always a living claim on my love and service. But doesn't the evil in other people necessarily force me to pass judgment on them, just for their own sake and because of love for them? We recognize how sharply the boundary is drawn. Love for a sinner, if misunderstood, is frightfully close to love for the sin. But Christ's love for the sinner is itself the condemnation of sin; it is the sharpest expression of hatred against sin. It is the unconditional love, in which Jesus' disciples should live in following him, that achieves what their own disjointed love, offered according to our own discretion and conditions, could never achieve, namely, the radical condemnation of evil." You really need the rest of what Bonhoeffer says in these pages, I think, to see that yes the quote you give has been misconstrued, and, I believe, is the cause of great damage to the witness of the church, at least here in the West.

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