Extended article for the Newsletter
I wrote an extra article for "Andrew's Voice," the newsletter of St. Andrew's Hespeler Presbyterian last week. But when the time came to put the newsletter together we ran out of space and I had to cut the article in half. I present the whole article here for those who are interested. The newsletter will soon be available at www.standrewshespeler.ca.
Now that’s a Good Question
This week, I had an old friend (not someone from St. Andrew's) contact me with some questions that had baffled her. Here is part of what she wrote:
"I was wondering if I could kind of ask for some advice or information from you? A friend of mine has been asking me about my beliefs and I don't know how to answer some of his questions. He brought up sin as a topic and asked how many times does God have to forgive you if you sin? How do you know you're forgiven? Does He already know your sin before you do it? If so, then why ask for forgiveness?
“He also asked, if Jesus appeared to lots of people as proof of rising, why doesn't he just appear today to prove that he has resurrected, like he did to Paul? There is nothing stopping Jesus from appearing to you right now if you ask? Yet since the Bible Jesus hasn't appeared to anyone for over 2000 years.
"Anyways I didn't really have any answers so if you could help me out at all that would be great!"
How many times does God forgive you?
The short answer to that question is that the only thing that limits God's forgiveness is the size of God's grace. And the more you know God, the more you realize that God's grace is indeed limitless.
But I suspect that the question requires more than just the short answer. There seems to be a common misunderstanding of the nature and problem of sin behind it. We have a tendency to think of our sins as that long list of things that we have done that were wrong or that we have failed to do that were right. And, while it is true that we all have our regrets for past actions (or failures to act), these things are not the real problem that God has with our sins. I do not believe that God spends all his time keeping track of our every little mistake so that he can punish us for them later.
Oh, God does care about our sin - cares very deeply - but not because of the specific actions. God cares because of the underlying attitude and what it does to us. Sin is an attitude that alienates us from God and from other people around us. It is also an attitude that prevents us from becoming all that we were meant to be. And God is always sad when we are living in alienation and when we fall short of his hopes and dreams for us. The attitude does manifest itself in particular actions that are also wrong, but it is the attitude that is the real problem that God's forgiveness is meant to address.
How often do you need to ask to be forgiven? As often as you need it. God doesn't require that you keep asking in order to be able to forgive you - of course not. But you may need to ask in order to be able to accept that forgiveness. The whole ritual of repenting and seeking forgiveness is not about fulfilling God's expectations or requirements. It is there to help us to find the strength to believe that we have been forgiven and to seek God's help to make whatever changes we need in our lives to avoid the same kinds of mistakes in the future.
Just as, when you have hurt someone that you love, you have to go to him or her and talk about what you did in order to put the hurt behind both of you so that you can move forward in your relationship, in the same way you need to talk to God about what has gone wrong so that things can start going right. It is for you more than it is for God.
The reason why the earliest Christians came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead was because, shortly after he had been taken from them and brutally murdered by the Romans, they experienced him as present with them again. These men and women experienced the risen Jesus in a variety of ways - some of them quite remarkable and unmistakable. And so, naturally, when they announced to the world that Jesus had risen, they cited their own experiences of the risen Jesus as proof of this stunning event.
Your question seems to assume that the whole point of the appearances was in order to prove the reality of the resurrection. And, of course, it is true that what they experienced proved to them that Jesus had risen from the dead, but does that mean that these appearances happened in order to prove the reality of the resurrection? I don't think so. I believe that Jesus made these appearances in order to transform the lives of people and to create the community of the church.
The other assumption that is often made is that those experiences of the risen Jesus stopped at some point. You ask, "Why doesn't [Jesus] just appear today to prove that he has resurrected, like he did to Paul?" But go and take a look at the accounts of Paul's experience (Acts 9, 22, 25). Those accounts make it pretty clear that Paul did not meet the risen Christ in bodily form. Nor did he see Jesus - all he saw was a bright light and then he didn't see anything at all because he was blinded. What Paul had, in effect, was a vision (or you might even call it an audition because he really only heard it) of the risen Jesus. And I would hardly argue that nobody has had a vision of the risen Jesus in the almost 2000 years since the Apostle Paul.
People have continued to have many and varied experiences of the risen Jesus. Some have had visions, some have heard voices, some have felt calm assurances and clear senses of direction but every one would say that those experiences have been very real.
But, you see, the big problem with personal experiences like that is that, while they are obviously very convincing to those who live through them, they are not very useful as proof to those who have not had those experiences. That is why I would insist that the real purpose behind such experiences is not proof but personal and group transformation. And God certainly deals in transformation to this very day.
Jesus is not particularly interested in offering you proof of the resurrection through demonstration. Believing it is a matter of faith. Jesus is interested in transforming you, however, by whatever means you may be open to.