The other day a dying woman told me that she was terrified of what death would bring her. I asked her if she believed that Jesus is Lord. She told me that she does; that she had always loved Jesus. When I tried to reassure her of what this means, that heaven awaits her after she leaves this world, she asked me, ‘Do you think He (God) would want me?’
This woman once knew God’s love for her, and all people, very well. However, years of mental illness have eroded away her confidence and left her clinging to the works-based doctrine of salvation which was ingrained into her by the Catholic church. A doctrine which has left her ashamed and guilt-ridden, terrified that a cigarette addiction might bar her from God’s love.
I started to explain to this woman, more or less, that God understands the struggle and strongholds of addiction, and while it’s not good to be addicted to drugs (legal or otherwise), He knew that she wasn’t deliberately doing something bad. She was so shocked and hopeful that I almost broke down crying right there. I continued on to explain that the book of Hebrews teaches us about how Jesus lived the human life and understands our weaknesses and temptations; so when we seek His forgiveness, we know He can sympathise with our condition. She burst into tears, and thanked me profusely for telling her this truth.
While we may not be facing the looming shadow of death in the same way that she is, many of us battle these same fears; secretly worried that God is still angry with us – still holding something we’ve done against us. Perhaps we too are afraid that an angry or disappointed God awaits us at the end of life. Perhaps we are afraid that in prayer we come before a God who begrudgingly listens, still glancing over at our mistakes or weakness as we pray.
One night, I accused God of hating women; of being sadistic, unfair, and unjust in His treatment of women and His supposed limitation on the ways we can contribute to Christian life. Of being cruel in how He has given men excuses to oppress, hurt, or exclude us based exclusively on the fact that we were born with certain reproductive organs. I accused Him of being hateful and oppressive toward women, and I cursed that He had created me a female.
I don’t take speaking against God lightly. Yes, I know that He is merciful and gracious, and that He knows that I was hurting when I said such things. However, our God is to be honoured with the highest honour and feared in reverent awe. He is YHWH; the God who holds every created thing, every breath of life, in His hands. It is a serious thing to approach the King so disrespectfully and accuse Him so violently of hating and oppressing creatures He has loved so intently.
Even having repented and knowing the graciousness of God, I still approached my prayers and quiet times with a subtle distance for some time after that night. Whether it was a sense of guilt, fear, or shame, it had embedded itself so deeply that I didn’t even realize the question burning secretly in my heart: is He still angry at me?
I had the privilege, this year, of meeting John Calvin. And when I say I ‘met’ the dead sixteenth-century theologian, I mean I interacted with his work for the first time. I also had the pleasure of studying the epistle to the Hebrews which, alongside Calvin’s writings on prayer, has given me greater understanding of not just forgiveness, but how Jesus intercedes for us to the Father.
Hebrews teaches about Jesus’ humanity. It tells us that he was made like us in all things, and was tempted in every way that we are tempted to fall into sin (yet he did not sin). He was made to endure sufferings so that he could truly sympathise with human weakness and pain, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. He can intercede for us because knows intimately the weakness, frailty, and suffering of humanity. He knows what it is to be tested and tried, and to be tempted to sin against God.
Now, I’m fairly certain that Jesus never struggled with a nicotine addiction. Call it a hunch. There are many specific pains and griefs that he may have ever known first-hand in his life on earth. He never fell pregnant from rape, for instance. However, we should not underestimate the power of what Jesus went through in his death.
In his death, he not only took the weight and consequence of every sin in this world, but faced the very essence of sin, of pain, and of death. He became sin, and died the death of every kind of sinner, so that we might be reconciled to the Father through him.
When we pray for forgiveness of our sins, when we express our grief to God in prayer (even disrespectfully), Jesus catches our prayers. Jesus, the one who experienced the unimaginable depths of guilt, shame, sin, grief, and pain. The one who knows intimately how we are tested, how we suffer, and knows intimately the weakness and frailty of humanity. He eagerly inclines His ear to our prayers, and then presents them before the Father safely and effectively. Of any accusation I made against the Father, Jesus not only took the repercussions at the cross, but stands before Him now as an advocate of what my prayers were meant to convey: grief, hurt, and a cry for justice and restoration of a broken world.
When we ask for the Father’s forgiveness, He looks at us as He looks at His Son; because it is His Son who is asking Him for our forgiveness. We do not have to shrink back in fear of our God and King; because by the power of Christ’s blood, we are His children, whom He loves. He does not stand before our prayers holding onto our mistakes, but eagerly waits for us, beckons us, to enter into His presence and experience His love. He stands not with arms folded, but with arms outstretched to hold us in the safety of His embrace, where we can truly know Him as Abba, Father.