I was following a thread on Twitter the other night about the woman taken in adultery. The issue in question was whether Christ had forgiven her when he said “Go, and sin no more” or whether that was just an invitation to repent. Here is the passage in full:
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
The question of forgiveness is a big one, because it has implications for each and every one of us. How you read this scripture probably says a lot about your inner religious life. My view of this scripture has changed over time, and I think for the better.
Growing up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I knew that the works side of the grace and works was absolutely important: all these other Christians probably were out reveling and sinning and going to Church the next Sunday thinking they were forgiven. But that’s not how we Mormons do things! Faith without works is dead and all.
But when you looked inward and how I wrestled with my own sins, the bravado fell away. I was very insecure about my standing with God. While I hadn’t read Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness, its specter permeated my understanding of repentance. There are three passages in particular that haunted me:
- Repentance takes time. Repentance is inseparable from time. No one can repent on the cross, nor in prison, nor in custody. One must have the opportunity of committing wrong in order to be really repentant. The man in handcuffs, the prisoner in the penitentiary, the man as he drowns, or as he dies such a man cannot repent totally. He can wish to do it, he may intend to change his life, he may determine that he will, but that is only the beginning.
- Forgiveness cancelled on reversion of sin. And again, “…Unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.”… To return to sin is most destructive to the morale of the individual and gives Satan another hand-hold on his victim. Those who feel that they can sin and be forgiven and then return to sin and be forgiven again and again must straighten out their thinking. Each previously forgiven sin is added to the new one and the whole thing gets to be a heavy load.
- Nothing secret to God. There are no corners so dark, no deserts so uninhabited, no canyons so remote, no automobiles so hidden, no homes so tight and shut in but that the all-seeing One can penetrate and observe. The faithful have always known this… Can anyone doubt that God hears prayers and discerns secret thoughts?
I developed a terrible arithmetic of repentance and forgiveness. I was afraid that if I missed repenting of a single sin, that I would be confronted with it at judgment day. I couldn’t let myself somehow let one slip by. If I ever re-committed a sin– even small ones (let’s say I repented of yelling at my brother, and then I yelled at him again) all the punishments would add on top of each other. And the qualification that repentance takes time– I never could be sure when I had fully repented, when I had felt bad enough for what I had done. When is enough enough?
I don’t think I was way off base either, because these are principles that are published, taught across the pulpit, and reiterated in Sunday School. Whenever the story of the woman in adultery comes up, everyone has to clarify that she was just starting the repentance process. And it always left me feeling hopeless.
A definite instance of forgiveness of sins
But I don’t think this is the good news of the gospel anymore. I don’t think this is what repentance is supposed to look like. There are two scriptures that I would like to offer up that perhaps aren’t often looked at in conjunction with this scripture.
The first is a definite instance where Christ did offer forgiveness of sin. The story of the man with palsy:
When Jesus saw [the faith of those carrying the man with palsy], he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins are forgiven thee.
But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts,
Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?
And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts?
Whether it is easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? (Mark 2:5-9)
Now, we don’t know this man’s past history. But guessing he is human, he probably has some sins he has committed (and if Christ is forgiving him, that implies some sin). Yet Christ here has forgiven this man without any act of restitution or signs of pang of conscience whatever. In fact, it seems what motivated Christ to extend forgiveness to this man was no act of the man himself, but the faith of his friends who brought his to Christ. It was this action that so alarmed the Pharisees, and perhaps awakens a similar sense of justice in us.
I don’t mean to say that repentance isn’t necessary here. What I do mean to say that how repentance and forgiveness should be treated with more respect, a sense of awe, instead of thinking that we can actually calculate exactly how much repentance needs to be done for each kind of sin. We should also realize that Christ’s ultimate goal isn’t to make sure we’ve given our share of repentance, but ultimately to become like him. Both repentance and forgiveness aren’t ends in themselves, but a path that leads to the divine life.
All have sinned
With the next scripture I hope to allay the fear that some seem to have that others will go easy on adulterers if they interpret this scripture too lightly. Christ mentions adultery in his Sermon on the Mount:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Christ never lowered the bar for anyone. To the contrary, he raised it. We aren’t only responsible for our actions, but our thoughts as well. Our very thoughts can condemn us, and, according to Christ, can have just as serious consequences as sins like adultery. Christ in no way lowered that bar when he had mercy on the woman in adultery. But we would do well that we are all in the same situation as that woman in adultery: we can’t excuse ourselves, because our sins are less obvious.
In fact, this is a lesson that is lost on many Latter-Day Saints. While we don’t preach the doctrine of original sin (we are depraved by nature, we all took part in the sin of Adam and Eve), we do acknowledge with Paul that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Sometimes in the Church, we feel that we don’t have to actively repent because we are keeping a checklist set of standards: I pay my tithing, I fast, I don’t commit any major sins, I go to Church on Sundays. But these are just the bare minimum, guys! Read the Sermon on the Mount, and you find that the spiritual life is much more than that. We should be repenting every day, searching our souls, trying to be a little kinder, a little less self-centered, a bit more loving.
C. S. Lewis actually taught me this profound principle when he said:
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual. The pleasure of putting people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasure of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me; they are the animal self and the diabolical self; and the diabolical self is the worst of the two. That’s why the cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course it is better to be neither.
C. S. Lewis puts it quite bluntly that he thinks sins like pride and hatred are actually worse than the sins of the flesh. And I largely agree with this re-evaluation. Too often we go easy on ourselves with these, our pet sins. When in reality, these are the ones that are going to be the most difficult to overcome. Elder Maxwell echoed similar sentiments in his talk Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father when he said:
Once the telestial sins are left behind and henceforth avoided, the focus falls ever more on the sins of omission. These omissions are a signify a lack of qualifying fully for the celestial kingdom. Only greater consecration can correct these omissions, which have consequences just as real as do the sins of commission. Many of us thus have sufficient faith to avoid the major sins of commission, but not enough faith to sacrifice our distracting obsessions or to focus on our omissions.
Sure, adultery will keep you out of the celestial kingdom. But more likely, it will be a sin of omission will do the job just fine. Ack. I have to pull another C. S. Lewis quote, this time from Screwtape Letters:
You will say these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that the cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one– the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
Legitimate concerns, but…
So yes. Christ may actually not have extended immediate forgiveness to the woman in adultery. But don’t let that distract you to the point where you may actually be the one ready to throw a stone at her or another suffering soul trying to get on the path. And make sure that you take some time in the shoes of the woman in adultery, because all have sinned.
I think it is not only unhealthy, but doctrinally incorrect to worry about the exact moment when forgiveness is extended. God wants you to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, actively doing good, not worrying about the state of your soul. It is only in the doing that forgiveness can ultimately be given.
There was a time in my life when I was literally the woman in adultery. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality as a gay Latter-Day Saint, I committed some serious sins. In my anguish of soul, I went to my bishop with the full intention to repent. I had my hand on my wallet, ready to relinquish my temple recommend. I was too scared to tell my bishop, so I wrote it all down in a 3-page letter, detailing absolutely everything I did.
But when I got to the bishop’s office, it was nothing what I expected. He didn’t have a look of concern, disgust, or judgment. The first thing out of his mouth wasn’t to ask for my temple recommend or to administer chastisement. With a look of love, he said “Teach me.” I was the first LGBT Mormon he had ever worked with as a bishop, and he wanted to make sure that he could best minister to my needs in my spiritual journey. I bawled. And yes, repentance did come up. I had brought a list of goals that I wanted to work on over the next several months. But he never took my temple recommend away. In fact, several weeks later, he asked me to serve as a temple worker.
Again, I in no way am saying that repentance isn’t necessary. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of each person’s spiritual journey, and help them in coming to Christ.
Growing up, I always worried whether I had repented enough. But the scriptures tell us that we can know with a surety when we have repented. In D&C, Christ says, By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins– behold, he will confess them and forsake them. Just getting to that state of confession, the individual has probably already harrowed his soul and dragged himself over the coals to get to that point of self-honesty. And forsaking sin, giving it up, can indeed take time, especially for addictive behaviors, but in my humble opinion, I think you can have a clear conscience the moment you resolve not to sin again.
Again, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, repentance is a means, not an end. We don’t do penance. The idea that you need to inflict punishment on yourself to make up for your sins. I love this definition of repentance from the Bible Dictionary: A change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Repentance is necessary because it re-orients towards God once more. This view of repentance looks forward to the goal instead of backward at wherever we tripped up. Repentance is all about getting back up when we stumble and keep moving forward.
Image Credit: He That is without Sin by Liz Lemon Swindle at lds.org