Dear Donagh,

I want to ask you a tough question. Does God forgive everything? I was 14 years married when i left my husband. I was unhappy from the third year and committed adultery on and off for the next 11 years. There was periods of faithfulness and happiness and two children resulted. I can accept 51% of the blame but it takes two to tango as they say. I wasn't a practising Christian at the time but i am now, completely. I have turned my life over to God. Do i serve out the rest of my life in penance? Will I be forgiven for what i have done?
Please help,

Dear B,

I'm absolutely certain that you have God’s forgiveness, now that you have turned your life over to God.  There is no limit to God’s mercy.  Reading the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) should dispel any doubts you might still have.  Our sinful actions have damaging consequences, of course, and we have to try to undo these or learn to live with them, but nothing can turn off God’s forgiveness, just as nothing can stop the sun from shining.  Clouds don’t stop the sun from shining; they just hide it from our eyes.    

To assure you that this is not a modern lax ‘pleasing’ view, let me quote you a passage from Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century German mystic: “When you stand right above sin and turn completely away from it, then our faithful God acts as if you had never fallen into sin, and will not let you suffer for a moment for all your sins. Even if they were as many as all people have ever committed, God will never punish you, but would be as familiar to you as to any other creature. Provided He finds you now ready, He pays no regard to what you were before.  God is a God of the present.  As He finds you, so He takes and receives you, not as what you were but as what you are now.”

Another 14th-century mystic, an English woman, Julian of Norwich, spoke of God addressing loving words to us after we have turned from sin.  “Our courteous Lord shows himself to the soul, happily and with the gladdest countenance, welcoming it as a friend, as if it had been in pain and in prison, saying: ‘My darling, I am glad that you have come to me in all your woe.  I have always been with you, and now you see me loving, and we are made one in bliss.’”

Sometimes in the past, people played down God’s forgiveness, because (I suppose) they thought we would all go to pot if we believed God was so forgiving.  At the bottom of it – as is so often the case – is the compulsion to control people’s lives.  “Mercy is not for them that sin and fear not, but for them that fear and sin not," said a 19th-century preacher.  It was a rather stupid thing to say.  Who was he to set limits to God’s mercy?  It is the same as setting limits to God – which again is the same as denying the existence of God.  And besides, if people believed they had not sinned they would not be asking for mercy in the first place. 

No, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life doing penance.  I've heard it said that while it is easy to believe that God forgives you, it’s not so easy to forgive yourself.  I don’t think this is correct.  It is not possible to forgive yourself – any more than it is possible to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.  Forgiveness is something received, not something generated by oneself.  It takes a bit of humility to accept that our debt is written off.  It is because we haven’t gone fully into that humility that we hold back.  That holding back is not a reluctance to forgive oneself, but a reluctance to accept God's forgiveness.  No, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life doing penance.  But you can spend the rest of your life praising God’s unconditional love, and enjoying it. 


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