On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.


This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

LENT You Shall Afflict Yourselves

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. 28 And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. 29 For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30 And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31 You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath. (Leviticus 23:26-32 ESV)

“… you shall afflict yourselves…”

Literally, “humble the souls of you” [ועניתם את–נפשׁתיכם], bring yourselves low, grovel a while before God, wallow in the mud of your own sinfulness.

This is easy for us, actually, to wallow in our own sinfulness. Easy for some of us, at any rate.

There are several kinds of self-centeredness. There is the arrogant kind that sees no evil and no sin in one’s-self, and therefore needs no repentance and no atonement. A sin that regards one’s self — and one’s people — far too highly. We know this when we see it (Donald Trump, for example), and I think there are times when we even admire it. To act like this is clearly pride, clearly the kind of self-regard that thinks little of the effects words and deeds have on others. People like this are rarely wrong, and could use a day — or two, or many — when they are required to consider their sins, and how they have hurt others, made life difficult and painful and unpleasant and even dangerous for others.

But there is another kind of self-centeredness which always looks inward, which sees a self so damaged and so beyond repair and so lost cannot that it cannot see anything else. That the self is beyond the mercy and grace of a God, a God who never seems to be there and whose love is little felt and little experienced. The sin here is not pride, but self-loathing.

I’m more this kind of person. I have more this kind of self-centeredness, a self-hatred so sharp at times and so curled in upon myself that it has a hard time seeing the world around it, much less grasping hold of anything.

And so do the kids who have found me, who have claimed me as dad.

What does it mean for someone who hates themselves more often than not, who sees themselves not as sinless and justified, but as so sinful God cannot even love them, to “afflict yourselves”? I have visions of flagellants beating themselves bloody and raw, like the Shia men who march in Ashura festivals marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala, filling the streets with their blood as they flail and wail and lament. Only in pain and suffering can I maybe, just maybe, become worthy of the love of God and the love of my fellow human beings.

But that is not how it works. To “afflict ourselves” is to look outside, around, and up, to see a blue sky and feel crisp air. To “afflict ourselves” is to grasp, even for a moment, the love of God that is bigger than ourselves, a love that tell us — “you are worthy of being loved.”

Self-hatred too is a sin. It too must be atoned of. While the arrogant and prideful man must look inward and a see his soul, a soul he rarely gives thought to, we who too often hate ourselves atone of this sin by looking outward, by knowing we are loved, and wanted, and accepted, grabbing hold of that and holding on tight and knowing even a thimble full of love is bigger than an ocean full of hate, fear, terror, neglect, and despair.

We see a world, and all that is in it. And we love.

When asked what the most important commandment of God was, of the many handed down to Israel in the Torah, Jesus said:

“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel:The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 ESV)

God commands self-giving love from us. But not self-negating love. We cannot love our neighbors unless we first love ourselves. Unless we first see ourselves as God sees us — as beloved children made in the image of God, possessing the very breath of our creator, worthy of our humanity, worthy of our calling, worthy of the love.