I was wrong. I felt pressured and I snapped at my wife and said somethings I’d later regret bitterly, but it was too late. What could I do to make it better? How could I smooth over those hurt feelings? She said it was “okay,” but I knew better and I felt awful. Have you ever done something like that? What makes you feel guilty and how do you deal with it? Flowers? Dinner out? Offer to do the dishes?
In ancient times, when people felt they had offended God, they offered costly sacrifices. Blood was shed. Our “sin” cost the lives of innocent animals. A priest arrayed in special robes performed a solemn ceremony and we expressed our sorrow with a price. The more elaborate the ceremony and the more costly the sacrifice, the more certain we were that the gift was effective in reconciling us to God.
But now comes Christianity and the end of sacrifice, clergy, elaborate rituals and a palatial temple. For many people, it just didn’t seem to satisfy their deepest need for reconciliation with God.
Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a Syrian general afflicted with leprosy. Upon learning of the power of the Prophet Elisha, Naaman went to Israel to be healed, but it was too simple. “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River,” the general was instructed. Listen to his response:
But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage, (2 Kings 5:11, 12).
Likewise, sometimes the Christian Gospel seems too simple. Human beings seem attracted to pomp and circumstance. We love elaborate rituals and mysterious ceremonies. To simply be forgiven is just too easy and people felt the same way in the first century. Many of the Jewish Christians still felt a longing for the old ways of sacrifice and ritual. That’s one of the reasons the New Testament book of Hebrews was written. Notice chapter 10:
For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins, (Hebrews 10:1b,2)
The writer incisively points out if the temple sacrifices had truly taken away sin, why did they have to keep being repeated year after year? In fact, all the sacrifices did was serve as an annual reminder of our sins (v. 3). It would be like buying your wife an expensive gift to make up for your foolish actions, but every time you saw the present, it just reminded you again and again of how awful you were. Rather than reconcile, it just reminded you of your guilt. How futile! And so:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, (Hebrews 10:11).
Thus, true reconciliation isn’t a matter of repetition – offering the same sacrifice over and over again. Consider the Christian “Plan of Salvation.” It begins when our eyes are opened and we see things the way they really are. That is, we “believe.” Not only is that experience an eye-opener, it cuts us to the heart and we turn around: “repent,” but to ensure our repentance is genuine, we need to “confess.” That means admitting first to ourselves, then to God and to everyone else that we have sinned. At that point, believers are born again, that is, baptized, and their sins are washed away.
Now consider how the same steps can also work in relationships. When I realize, I have hurt someone (the believing stage), it genuinely cuts me to the heart and I begin to behave differently (repentance). It may take great courage, but I need to admit I was wrong (confess). My confession is believable because I have changed my behavior. This is an opportunity for a new beginning – a new birth if you will, in the relationship.
Notice how this approach is different from the first. The old way of dealing with our guilt calls for elaborate sacrifices. The new way calls for a change in behavior. The old way depends on someone else: a priest, a counselor, a friend. The new way places the responsibility on us for our actions. The old way didn’t involve the other person at all. The new requires confession.
Simple? Perhaps, but the Gospel is truly good news for every aspect of our life.