Tuesday, December 12, 2006

To Understand is to Forgive?

One thing I mention quite a bit, largely to remind myself, is the importance of listening to other people and trying to understand where they are coming from before condemning them.

Alexander Chase said that to understand is to forgive. I think there's a lot of truth in there, but I don't think it's quite true. To understand someone else is usually to see that they're no worse than us, which can often lead to forgiveness because our standards are so low - they have to be, if we accept ourselves.

In a sense, to understand is to condemn, because our motives are so rarely pure. So God understands everything, and sees that we so often set ourselves up against him and so often fail to trust him, and rightly condemns us for that. It is then astounding that even though God both understands us and has perfect standards that he still offers to accept us by giving himself for us.

For us, to understand is to cease to be judgemental and to condemn without understanding is to run the risk of being judgemental.

The apostle Paul wrote this:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?
Romans 2:1-3, NIV

It is striking to me that the verses immediately before that are often used to condemn people, specifically over homosexual behaviour. But to do that is only to condemn ourselves.

I am not saying there is no place for moral standards - I am saying that the only place we should proclaim them from is the explicit recognition that they condemn us too, but that there is real forgiveness to be found in Christ.

Here is a story from the Bible that illustrates the importance of listening to other people before condemning them. I believe it is particularly relevant for those who would condemn other Christians because of their musical styles, use of liturgy (or lack of it), use of images in worship, etc, etc. The context is that Israel have just settled in the Promised Land, with lots of laws about how they could only do sacrifices to God at the Tabernacle.

So the men of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh left the rest of Israel at Shiloh in the land of Canaan. They started the journey back to their own land of Gilead, the territory that belonged to them according to the Lord’s command through Moses.

But while they were still in Canaan, and when they came to a place called Geliloth[a] near the Jordan River, the men of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh stopped to build a large and imposing altar.

The rest of Israel heard that the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had built an altar at Geliloth at the edge of the land of Canaan, on the west side of the Jordan River. So the whole community of Israel gathered at Shiloh and prepared to go to war against them. First, however, they sent a delegation led by Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to talk with the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. In this delegation were ten leaders of Israel, one from each of the ten tribes, and each the head of his family within the clans of Israel.

When they arrived in the land of Gilead, they said to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, “The whole community of the Lord demands to know why you are betraying the God of Israel. How could you turn away from the Lord and build an altar for yourselves in rebellion against him? ... today you are turning away from following the Lord. If you rebel against the Lord today, he will be angry with all of us tomorrow.

“If you need the altar because the land you possess is defiled, then join us in the Lord’s land, where the Tabernacle of the Lord is situated, and share our land with us. But do not rebel against the Lord or against us by building an altar other than the one true altar of the Lord our God. ...

Then the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered the heads of the clans of Israel: “The Lord, the Mighty One, is God! The Lord, the Mighty One, is God! He knows the truth, and may Israel know it, too! We have not built the altar in treacherous rebellion against the Lord. If we have done so, do not spare our lives this day. If we have built an altar for ourselves to turn away from the Lord or to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings, may the Lord himself punish us.

“The truth is, we have built this altar because we fear that in the future your descendants will say to ours, ‘What right do you have to worship the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has placed the Jordan River as a barrier between our people and you people of Reuben and Gad. You have no claim to the Lord.’ So your descendants may prevent our descendants from worshiping the Lord.

“So we decided to build the altar, not for burnt offerings or sacrifices, but as a memorial. It will remind our descendants and your descendants that we, too, have the right to worship the Lord at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices, and peace offerings. Then your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no claim to the Lord.’

“If they say this, our descendants can reply, ‘Look at this copy of the Lord’s altar that our ancestors made. It is not for burnt offerings or sacrifices; it is a reminder of the relationship both of us have with the Lord.’ Far be it from us to rebel against the Lord or turn away from him by building our own altar for burnt offerings, grain offerings, or sacrifices. Only the altar of the Lord our God that stands in front of the Tabernacle may be used for that purpose.”

When Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the community—the heads of the clans of Israel—heard this from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, they were satisfied. Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, replied to them, “Today we know the Lord is among us because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord as we thought. Instead, you have rescued Israel from being destroyed by the hand of the Lord.”

Then Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, and the other leaders left the tribes of Reuben and Gad in Gilead and returned to the land of Canaan to tell the Israelites what had happened. And all the Israelites were satisfied and praised God and spoke no more of war against Reuben and Gad.

The people of Reuben and Gad named the altar “Witness,” for they said, “It is a witness between us and them that the Lord is our God, too.”

Joshua 22:9-34, NLT

Oh, and thanks to Liam, whose post got me thinking once again about this.

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